I didn’t get invited to lunch or coffee runs or happy hour to celebrate a new success. I wasn’t asked to join team brainstorming sessions with my agency counterparts or collaborate on new projects. When my mid-year review came around it included cutting, anonymous quotes from women I’d hardly shared a real conversation with, one calling me ‘arrogant.’ I felt bewildered, humiliated and confused. And it was the best thing that happened to me.
This competitive—let’s call it—‘mean girl’ office mentality has become less popular since Lean In, and real life successful women have shown that it’s better to play nice. But the nastiness does still exist.
Because I’ve been in the trenches where pretty, manicured hands are throwing ugly, explosive grenades there are a few things I did to keep my war wounds from festering.
1. Say ‘thank you.’ My career began in the news industry where tearing up a script in your face was a form of constructive criticism. It made me tough, but it also taught me how to deal with bullies. It’s harder for someone to tear you down when you smile and thank that person for his/her idea.
2. Be a good teacher. Keep in mind that bullying is a learned behavior. Someone probably treated your co-worker in the same way that he/she is treating you, so help that person unlearn the behavior by setting a good example.
3. Listen to what’s not being said. Mean people are unhappy people. There’s something missing in his/her life that they think you have, which makes you the enemy. I had a co-worker leave me out of meetings because she didn’t like people asking about my pregnancy.
4. Build alliances. If you’ve seen the movie Mean Girls, then you understand that there’s a ringleader in the club. But, you might be surprised what happens when you get to know other co-workers one-on-one. People like to share their opinions, so try asking someone to coffee for an ‘I’d love to get your candid feedback on this.’ The ask must be sincere though.
5. Find an office mentor. During my time at the aforementioned agency, my mentor was a male. He was a good husband, happy father and had a deadpan sense of humor. Your mentor is not someone for you to vent to when you’re angry. It’s a waste of your time and theirs. Rather, sit in on a meeting or client phone call to see how they handle conflict—the right way. It’s quite refreshing.
6. Start drinking. I’m not a crier, but everybody has a breaking point. The eye rolls, mumbles, passive aggressive emails day-in and out can wear on you. But do not let them see you cry. That’s what coffee runs are for. It’s amazing what a 20-minute break will do for your mental state.
7. Be yourself. To me this is non-negotiable in any setting. But it’s hard to stay true when you feel like the odd man out every time you open your mouth or smile in a hostile setting.
The irony of this post is that I went on to a leadership position at another agency—helping working moms connect and new ones navigate the terrifying transition. I taught orientation to the newbies, and was almost always the first to ask a newcomer to lunch. My mission at work and in all personal settings is to make people feel welcome. Because I sat at the empty lunch table for far too long.
How do you deal with mean girls—or guys—in (and outside) of the office? I’m pretty sure there’s far more than 7 how-to’s for the list.