Is there a woman in this world who DOESN’T have a story to tell about being bullied or shunned by another teenage girl? Many adult women also have stories about a woman at work. It is so common, it seems like it’s a part of our nature. But I know we can aspire to a higher standard of behavior. The fact is most women do NOT bully others.
As a licensed psychologist, I’ve spoken to many women who have asked me what to do when they feel another woman is conspiring against them. Maybe their female boss is sabotaging their advancement or a fellow employee is spreading rumors that are completely false yet could get her fired. Whether it’s called bullying, bitchiness, relational or indirect aggression or some other term, this behavior can make you dread going to work. There are lots of solutions and my team and I are going to write several blog posts about how to handle this problem.
Why Women Develop Toxic Behaviors
The first step is to understand why women develop toxic behaviors and how they are used in the workplace. Workplace bullying occurs “when one person or a group of people are singled out by another person for unreasonable, embarrassing or intimidating treatment.” The bully may be in a position of authority and feels threatened, but it may also be a co-worker who is immature or insecure. Women and men most frequently display unprofessional aggressive behavior when they feel somehow “less than” the other person. There may also be a company culture that encourages such behavior.
Workplace bullying shows up in various ways:
- Verbal abuse–shouting or swearing at an employee
- Unjustified criticism or blame
- Exclusion from company activities
- Contributions and ideas purposefully ignored
- Language or actions to embarrass or humiliate an employee
- Practical jokes, especially if they occur repeatedly to the same person
One note: if everyone gets the same terrible treatment, it’s just bad management, not bullying.
Marlene Chism, author of Stop Workplace Drama: Train Your Team to have No Complaints, No Excuses, and No Regrets
says bullying is a form of conflict resolution. She points out that our families were our first organization. How we were raised may contribute to our becoming a victim or a bully ourselves.
Bullying Begins in Childhood
From the time we’re young, girls are expected to be sweet and nice, sugar and spice. If we show the normal feelings of anger, fear, jealousy or hurt, or if we go after what we want, we’re called derogatory names. The choice for young girls is clear: develop behavior that makes people like you, even if it’s superficial, or risk unpopularity by honestly pursuing your passion. These societal norms set up young girls to hide their true feelings and promote covert aggression and they grow up to become women with hidden agendas and few healthy relationships.
Is Toxic Behavior Cultural or Genetic?
Our culture helps support this toxicity into adulthood. Reality shows that capitalize on women being mean to other women position this as “normal” behavior. They make stars of women who behave badly. The media pokes fun at everything from bad hair-dos to serious drug problems among our most popular stars and politicians. We all know it isn’t fun if you’re on the receiving end. So why is mean behavior so popular in our society?
Some of it may be hardwired. Studies of chimpanzees and apes show that females often attack other females and kill their babies, probably to ensure there are enough resources for their own genes to survive. In fact, female apes may ally themselves with a powerful male to protect them from other females. Add the complexities of the human workplace and our historically patriarchal society and small wonder women try to knock others off the ladder. In this case, it’s not personal. You’re just in the way.
Toxic behavior is not unique to women, either. Men do it too; even chickens in the barnyard have their pecking order. However, men have managed to develop ways to compete and openly challenge another man and then go share a friendly beer. Women have a long history of looking to men to determine their self-worth. To get ahead, women have developed complex ways to gain approval and elevate themselves, many of which do not involve helping other women.
Workplace Relationships and Competitive Pressures
This competitive attitude among women has been called, “Not Enough Pie” syndrome, meaning they perceive there is room for only one woman at the top. Through this lens, every other woman is a threat and could become a target for bullying.
Women in the workplace today often equal and even outnumber men. But the power positions are still overwhelmingly male and masculine leadership styles dominate most corporate cultures. This pressures some women managers to prove themselves by being overly tough on their female employees.
However, it’s important to make sure it’s not justified criticism of your poor performance, point out Emily Blake and Andrian Alphona. It might “not be a mean girl issue at all. If it is legitimately about the job you’re doing, and they are just dealing with you in a bitchy, unprofessional way, you have two choices: suck it up and get better at your job, or leave.”
Even if you can’t change another woman’s toxic behavior you can always develop skills to improve your performance, prevent becoming a victim and make sure you aren’t a bully yourself.
Remember the Golden Rule: Treat everyone else as you want to be treated. Check out more strategies for overcoming and avoiding toxic relationships.
Have you encountered a book or website that helped you deal with mean behavior by other women? Please let us know in the comments below. We will check it out and post a link for other women to benefit.
Read the Whole Mean Women Series:
- Why Are Women So Mean To Other Women?
- Manage Your Expectations To Stop Bullying
- Manage Your Boundaries | Learn to Stop Bullying
- Stop Bullying and Advance Career by Building Professional Skills
- Correct Your Own Sexist Attitudes
- How to Deal with Indirect Aggression from Other Women
- Should You File a Formal Complaint About Abusive Behavior?