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Are you working with an office mean girl?

If the office feels like an arena of sabotage, power plays and manipulation, your mental health and performance can suffer the consequences. Find out who you’re sharing office space with, and what to do.

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We’ve all experienced workplace hostility at one time or another; it’s being on the receiving end of a certain tone of voice, or a snide comment. You see-saw between wondering if you’re just being too sensitive or if you really are dealing with a rude colleague. Though confrontation in the workplace is inevitable, there’s a big difference between simply butting heads in the boardroom and dealing with outright hostility. A survey from The Harvard Business Review notes that 66 percent of employees experience a performance decline when targeted by hostile behaviour, while a whopping 78 percent of employees feel a decrease in commitment to their organization as a result of workplace rudeness. Those are hardly encouraging numbers for healthy career development. Furthermore, dealing with a workplace bully can lead to depression, stress and may even influence you to become a mean girl too.

So how do you recognize this negative behaviour  and avoid damage to your morale and career ? In a new book, Working with Bitches: Identify the Eight Types of Office Mean Girls and Rise Above Workplace Nastiness, author Meredith Fuller, a psychologist and specialist in career development, offers insights, tools, and management advice. She shared her findings with Chatelaine.com on the types of “mean girls” that are most common in the workplace, and why men don’t notice exclusion the way women do.

Q: What was your inspiration for the book, and what do you hope readers will take away from it?

A: In my career counselling practice I have seen thousands of women who seek my assistance as they struggle with loss of work satisfaction, stress, depression, anxiety, or exhaustion. In many cases, when we explore the underlying cause we discover they have been dealing with a “bitch” – whether a manager, peer, or staff member – and this has derailed them. These hard-working women are invariably ethical, naïve, and fear that they are too sensitive, or lack the robustness to continue with their careers. Regardless of their seniority or credentials, they have turned their feelings of hurt and shame inward, remained silent, and defenseless. They have assumed that it must be their fault, or that they aren’t resilient enough to cope.

I wanted to help decent, transparent, earnest, hard-working women. How might they maintain their integrity and minimize the damage? These women do not wish to resort to manipulative antics, and it is unlikely that they could. They needed to hear that it wasn’t their imagination; they weren’t too soft, and there were some things they could manage to do for self-protection.

Q: You mention that “bitchiness exists in every area employing at least two females.” What two personality types occur most often in the workplace?

A: Of the eight types identified, the two that seem to occur most are the Excluder and the Toxic. Reminiscent of school nastiness, an Excluder ignores you to render you invisible and keep you on the outer. They don’t have eye contact, they don’t converse, they fail to pass on messages, and they block you. They might feel threatened by you, or they may only bother interacting with women who are useful to them. Bottom line: Either they want the competition to go away, or they simply don’t waste time with people unless there’s something in it for them.

The second typical type is the “Toxic Bitch”. They may be overly friendly too quickly, to the point of syrupy ingratiation. They try to smother you with attention, praise, offering assistance or gossip. They may try to ‘hook’ you in by sharing their sad life story, self-doubts, or neediness, and you may feel protective or concerned for them. Bottom line: Whatever acceptance they seek will never be enough and [they can be] two-faced vampires.

Working with Bitches book coverQ: So are office mean girls self-aware enough to notice or even attempt to fix their behaviour?

A: Some Excluders are very aware – they don’t necessarily like people and see no need to modify their behavior. Other Excluders will modify their behaviour if more senior staff or the group expect it. Unless there is something in it for the Excluder, they tend not to change their behaviour.

The Toxic’s behaviour is more unconscious, and more complex – this makes it harder to alter. You need to block them by refusing to listen to gossip, refusing to blur boundaries, and refusing to let things slide. If the Toxic makes ambiguous or snide statements, loudly ask them to clarify. Make sure they don’t invade your personal space (don’t stand too close) to make sure you can remain calm and neutral. If you discover that they have spread rumours or false information, confront them – don’t feel sorry for them and enable them. Make sure they are kept busy working so they don’t have time for mischief. They need to do their own personal work on their issues, and you cannot help them.

Q: Have you found there to be an increased incidence of these behaviours in any particular industry?

A: They can be found in any industry, but it is particularly noticeable where there is uncertainty, high-turnover, and high-stress. As the world becomes more hectic, more stressful, and there is greater uncertainty, fewer promotions, and higher mobility in jobs, there is little time for reflection. Specifically, there are higher incidences in organizations that lack clear and well-communicated leadership; that do not have protocols or policy about human capital; and that do not model and reward adult behavior.

Q: You mention that men don’t notice exclusion the way women do, as we tend to seek out different connections than them. What is it that men do differently that allows exclusive behaviour to go unnoticed?

A: [Men are] less likely to establish eye contact, smile, and speak to everyone in the vicinity. If they nod, or greet someone and it isn’t reciprocated, they are more likely to assume that the other person didn’t hear, was absorbed in thought, or not even notice a lack of response. When men are in meetings they are less likely to notice whether everyone had an opportunity to speak, could all see the powerpoint clearly, or whether someone curled a lip or raised an eyebrow. Men are less likely to ruminate in bed about the interpersonal dynamics in the office, or worry that they weren’t wanted, valued, appreciated, or accepted by the other staff.

Men are usually more able to compartmentalize (eg. fight each other for resources in a meeting, yet good-naturedly play a social game of basketball) and are less likely to be attuned to the unconscious process in the room, or expect to feel emotionally safe in the workplace.

Readers, have you had a trying experience with a workplace mean girl? How did you remedy the situation? Please share with us in the comment space below, we want to hear from you.

Meredith Fuller has thirty years’ experience as a psychologist, working in private practice and consulting for major organizations. Her book, Working with Bitches: Identify the Eight Types of Office Mean Girls and Rise Above Workplace Nastiness is available March 26, 2013.