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Posted: March 01, 2012

“Mean Girl” syndrome in the workplace

Here's how to stop the sabotage

Sandrine Heine

“I want to be respected!!”  I often hear that from women at work, yet women often don’t respect each other or even themselves.  Lack of respect leads to ”Mean Girl Syndrome,” where women sabotage other women’s progress in the workplace, undermining the respect we have earned. Here is an example:

Womanl 1:  "How surprising to see Heather getting that promotion. I wonder why management thought she was the right person for it. I certainly know the project better, I have been on it for 5 years. "
Woman 2: ”I wonder who she knows or what she did. She’s only been with the company for one year”
Woman 1:  "And I heard from others that she is not good with people, so why did they choose her?"

Let’s see what is really going on, why we behave this way, what we can do to stop the sabotage, and how we can embrace relationships that encourage respect and success.

Be aware of the problem and thoughts you have toward other women.
If you ask a full room of women to raise their hand if they have been either backstabbed by another woman or felt completely disempowered.  All hands will rise. Ask the same women to raise their hands if they have backstabbed or disempowered another woman. No hands rise...    Too often we are unaware of our thinking and actions toward others.. If I want respect for myself, then I need to act with respect toward others first.

When you have negative thoughts, identify the real emotions behind them; jealousy, anger, resentment, fear…
Stop a moment and ask yourself what is really bothering you. Deal with the real issue and be honest.. If you need help to sort it out, find someone outside the company who can help you clarify your feelings (a coach is a great tool).  But if you just lash out, it always boomerangs causing others to see you as a trouble maker or untrustworthy. Be an observer of your thoughts; stop them before they drag you to the ugly side.  Substitute positive thoughts. When you hear someone trashing another woman, stand up for her, because one day you will need other women to stand up for you.

When you know something is wrong, don’t ignore it hoping it will go away.  Untreated conflicts only feed anger and resentment. Instead, approach the person with a solution by focusing on the future and don’t dwell on the past, or what has been said or done.  Be firm and gracious about what you want the future to look like and how you can both get there. By doing this, you remove the drama and you position yourself as a leader.

Apologize if you have in any way disempowered other women.
Even if we didn’t raise our hand earlier, we all have spoken meanly or had unpleasant thoughts about other women. Now is the time to change this behavior. When you surprise yourself by saying something disempowering, apologize right away.

Congratulate and motivate other women.
Be their mentor. Ask to be their mentee. Be a cheerleader for the women’s team.  Show respect and excitement when a woman is promoted.  It means that she is blazing a path for you and other women. Be truly happy for them.  Meet with them and learn what they did to earn the success. Other women will want to learn from you too - be open to them and become a mentor.

Do you have what you need for the position you seek?
While wondering why you did not get a promotion, ask yourself if you had all the skills and experience required. Ask for a review from your boss/colleagues/mentors to identify which additional experience and skills you need for the next promotion.  Fill the gaps that you collectively identify.

Be your own promoter. Advocate your skills and your qualities.
You are uniquely qualified to express what you want to do and how well you can do it, for the company.  Build your own business case. Put yourself up for the challenge, and don’t put others down.  By being positive, you will create more positive situations around you.

Treat and respect others the way you want to be treated and respected.  As Gandhi said: “Be the change you want to see."

Sandrine Heine is founder of The Loud Flower, a practice offering specialized services to women and companies to fully understand the true potential of the female vision and how, by embracing it, helps organizations to be prepared for the next business evolution. You can learn more at

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Readers Respond

No Monica, they helped train me to manage, period. Maybe that's why I've been a businessman for 40 years, but I am trying to retire. I do have fun giving talks to high schools about business though and I ALWAYS mention a woman's place in the workforce. By John Wray on 2012 03 09
I'd suggest re-framing the issue from gender based to emotional intelligence. Monica stated it well: 'people sometimes behave badly regardless of their gender.' The poor interactions I've been a part of came down to one of us (male/female) not behaving in an emotionally intelligent manner. Think back over your last 100 interactions with women- I would hazard that 100 of them were positive, same as with men. Instead we focus on the 1/1,000 interaction we had with a woman that didn't go well and raise the flag that women are 'backstabbers', which we don't do when it's with a man. We are doing ourselves a disservice and undermining the wonderful support that women give and receive from one another every day. Let's stop making the exception the rule, stop using phrases like 'mean girl syndrome', and start focusing on employing some of the advice you shared, Sandrine, in a gender-neutral way. By Maureen Berkner Boyt on 2012 03 09
To John's point, we don't need "extra slack." We do need to be respected & to be ourselves at work, which I'm sure is the environment in a family of 8 girls! Bless his heart, I'm sure he got great training in how to manage women! By Monica Hahn on 2012 03 09
Your advice on how to deal with negative thoughts is excellent. Stopping to think about our emotions before we act or speak is a hallmark of emotional intelligence. I would challenge the assertion that this problem is so ubiquitous. Maybe I'm naive to not have realized it, or just lucky to not have experienced it, but my hand wouldn't go up. My perhaps naive & lucky but incredibly successful & empowered circle of friends suggests that this whole issue is overblown. People sometimes behave badly, regardless of their gender. You're not responsible for their actions, only for your reaction. Let's focus on empowering success & good behavior, & stop talking so much about how we are the source of our own problem. That just creates an excuse for why we haven't made more progress, and it's unproductive. By Monica Hahn on 2012 03 09
This is an article every woman must read! Women are catty - they have a propensity to be malicious and spiteful. I believe it goes with women's insecurities and attempting to be part of the bigger crowd - to be popular and only associating with those that seem to fit the profile. They lose the bigger picture of who someone is. I have seen this behavior not only in the workplace but, also, in general interpersonal relationships. I know someone who is a lovely and caring person but for some reason many of the women around her will blatantly ignore her or talk over her! It's incredibly hurtful! We need to call this what it is and give it the "bully" label. Every women has SOMETHING to offer! Thank you for writing this article! I hope many women will read this and rethink how they treat others - alone or in a crowd!!! By Cat Blondie on 2012 03 03
Great article! I have experienced this first-hand in the workplace. It is always disheartening to see women treat each other so disparagingly. It sets all women back when we behave this way, especially after we have come so far. I hope your article inspires others to help lead the way in changing these behaviors. By Margie Hayes on 2012 03 02
Sandrine, this is a fantastic article. I loved it and am going to pass it on to all my girlfriends (and many of my guy friends, too). It is inspiring for anyone at any age! Love you and miss you girl! By Mellany on 2012 03 01
Great article Sandrine! It's so important to treat each other with respect, regardless of the situation. I loved what you said about "remove the drama and you position yourself as a leader" - so true! Thanks for sharing your insight on this. By Lisa Cratty on 2012 03 01
How true! Women can give each other so much support. Great article! By Dominique on 2012 03 01
Hi Sandrine - Great article. Great to invite people and offer insights how to own your own stuff and co-operate. I look forward to more and more people choosing, both men and women, to treat each other and this world in ways that value all of us. The more we embrace ourselves the more we can embrace others. The more we know about ourselves the more we know about others and the greater the tools we have to embrace and create within ourselves and with the rest of the world. How great can this world get? I have a feeling much greater than we've ever thought possible and, despite current outward looking information of our "caterpillar" - from my perspective, there is a butterfly in process. I do my best for my daily choices to support that a stunning butterfly coming out of the coccoon. Thanks Sandrine. My best By Kim on 2012 03 01
Welcome to the real world girls. I have 8 daughters and I hope I taught them all to take care of themselves. I hired the first females in my business which never had them, but I give them NO extra slack for being female. I have had employees who tried to use "femininity" for advantage. I hate it but it happens less and less thank goodness. I even experienced it when teaching at the local college. Women can be their own worst enemies, but then so can men. good article By John Wray on 2012 03 01
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