I could hear the thump-thud of the bus tires as it rolled across my body in the conference room.
Stunned and shocked by the sudden push in front of its path, I looked up at my assaulter for the reason why. She stared blankly at me, as if we had never met before. As if we had never had a working relationship. She sat at the table, unscathed from the incident, and wiped her hands of any accountability.
I realized I was now working with a Mean Girl, and she had just thrown me under the bus to save herself.
As I dusted my self off, and assessed the bruised feelings and battered pride, I tried to make sense of the situation. Just yesterday, she and I had discussed a collaborative plan to work through the gap we had discovered. Now, not only did she appear to have amnesia, she had directed the room's attention to conclude I was responsible for the gap.
I was mortified and disappointed. I thought the Mean Girls tribe had disappeared with high school insecurities and bad 80's hair.
Yet here I was dealing with a Mean Girl. At Work.
“A mean girl at work is a woman who practices some form of covert competition or indirect aggression toward another woman,” says Katherine Crowley, psychotherapist and co-author of “Mean Girls at Work: How to Stay Professional When Things Get Personal.”
According to Crowley, men are more comfortable with competition and compete overtly. Women, not so much. As a result, some women, when threatened by competition in the workplace, become passively aggressive and purposely discredit, defame, and isolate those that they feel in competition with.
Furthermore, Gender bias can fuel this behavior with the notion that there are not enough senior positions for women to go around. Rather than encourage women to help other women succeed, it can pit them against each other.
First of all, understanding this phenomena is key to combating it. Although you can't avoid working with Mean Girls, you can learn how to minimize their assaults and address the adversary. Most relevant, a few tread marks can expedite the learning process.
Step #1 : Acknowledge the assault. If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…. Don't waste time and drive yourself crazy trying to find a reason that you were disrespected. Don't make excuses for her behavior either. Directly confront her privately and share your disappointment at the disrespect. Share the expectation that as colleagues there is a level of trust that you expect going forward. In addition to acknowledging the betrayal, you will give her the opportunity to behave differently, or at the very least, know that you are on to her.
Step #2 : Assess the damage caused. Being thrown under the bus by a Mean Girl never occurs without a witness. That's the point. Independently address anyone who may now have a different impression of your integrity or work product. In addition to acknowledging any gaps that you have responsibility for, reaffirm your commitment to correct and collaborate. If there was any mischaracterization at the scene of the accident, now is your time to correct that impression.
Do not play she said, she said.
Simply state the facts as they relate to you and your performance. Leave your assailants' name out of it.
Step # 3 : Self-Awareness is key. Use the opportunity to reflect on your internal navigation system. Are you fully aware of social clues, your work culture and the silent rules of engagement? Is this your first time experiencing Mean Girls at work? Do you work in a highly transactional area where self-preservation is the norm? If so, you will need to be keenly aware and transparent with all collaboration. You can help be the change you wish to see. Set the bar high and model respectful interpersonal relationships. Rather than letting this experience define you, use it study your workplace climate.
Step #4 : Find your tribe. Surround yourself with like minded women. Finding a tribe of professional women who all believe in supporting women in the workplace (and in life) can minimize the hurt and pain caused by a few. Most of all, find ways to support, mentor and encourage junior level women in your organization. Consequently, by breaking the chain of behavior, you will reduce the incidence of the select few who are too insecure to support their sisters.
Finally, heal and move on.
Like any painful trauma, you need to find a way to tap into your resilience and survive the offense. Because only you have the power to allow how long the experience affects you, the time line is entirely up to you. Either she stands to benefit from the violation or you do. Hold your head high, take a deep breath, and remember to look both ways when crossing the street.
Looking for a Tribe? Find Empowered Women, Empower Women on Facebook for daily inspiration, motivation, and positive vibes. Finally, a place where No Mean Girls allowed.