Six years ago, I interviewed at AARP with Tammy and Cecelia. Aside from being just desperate for a new job, there are two things I remember about that interview. First, I think I actually admitted to barely knowing what a 401(k) was but promising I could learn...I'd figured out patent law for my (then) current job and didn't know shit about that before! (I mean, I can't even. What was I thinking?!) But the second thing I distinctly remember is both Tammy and Cecelia telling me they didn't do "mean girls" in the department. There was no room for women hating on women - we were going to support each other.
Is it any surprise then, that Tammy and Cecelia became my mentors and eventually my closest friends? Ah, no.
In the years since that interview, there have been plenty of mean girls. And mean boys. Mean older people. Mean younger people. Frankly, mean people at work know no stereotypes, no background and can come out of nowhere.
The Anatomy of A Mean Girl
Let’s just level set here. Mean Girls are mean because they are insecure. There’s always something going on under their noggin that’s driving malicious, or just rude, behavior. Maybe it’s personal insecurity. Maybe she has a bad relationship with her boss. Maybe she doesn’t feel like she’s turned out enough work product lately. Maybe your company is going through layoffs and she’s nervous. Or maybe she just wants to take over the world – MGs are notorious for trying to angle to run the show. Point being, just recognize this is coming from a place of worry and nine times out of ten it has nothing to do with you.
And on that note, let’s try to remember that work is about work. Most of the time when someone is coming at you with jerky behavior it’s not personal. Someone going after your business strategy or cutting you down in a meeting is not an assault on your character or values. It’s not even a challenge to your passion for your job or your intellect. It helps to remember this because it will help temper your own defensive reactions. If you divorce yourself (your personal self) from the situation, you can see all the tactics for what they are – petty attempts to discredit you.
It’s Strictly Business
The best way to defend yourself against a mean girl is to always be about the business. Whether you’re laser focused on developing a better customer service program or generating new memberships or fundraising more for your cause, stay focused on your business’ bottom line goal. Everything you propose, work on and do in your 40+ hour week should always be tied back to the goals of your company or organization. Not only does driving the bottom line make you a more valuable employee, it also covers your ass big time - especially if you're in the business of innovation or exploring new/cutting edge projects.
See, while the MG is focused on you – cutting you down, discrediting you, etc. – she’s not focused on the real task at hand: the company’s bottom line. And probably doing so in front of her peers and leadership.
Essentially, this is the business equivalent of taking the high road.
What this is not? This is not being cold and detached, not taking people's feelings and emotions into account. You need to up your emotional IQ to be effective here, so listen more and pay attention to what's going on around you.
Prepare For Battle
Consider every meeting, every call, every hallway conversation a battle. You need to prepare for battles, right? You need to be armed with stats, examples, key messages that support your strategy and tie it back to business goals. You need to anticipate all the weaknesses in your strategy, address them or knock them out. You need to anticipate what MG is going throw your way or how she’ll pick you apart. Have a hand out, a slide or a handful of stats that combat or speak to those jabs. You will feel much more confident about the plan you’ve laid out but you’ll also look like a rock star to the team you’re working with and the higher-ups who are managing you and MG.
Group meetings are not the time to float a big new idea that could leave you feeling vulnerable or unprepared. If you're planning on broaching a new project with your team, rally your bosses and higher ups. Run ideas by the decision makers first and make sure you're going in with backup support. I rarely introduce ideas or speak authoritatively about something without running all the traps - up and down the ladder - beforehand. MGs involved or not.
What is this not? This is not snapping at MG in meetings. This is not attacking her in public settings. It's a fine line between being smart and on-point and embarrassing someone publicly. You are are going for the former, not the latter.
That Said, Choose Your Battles Wisely
You are but one person - with limited emotional capacity and internal political capitol. You cannot win every fight, nor should you even try to. Learning to choose which fights to engage in is a skill you'll acquire over time. Before you run with a knee-jerk reaction, take a walk and game it out. Think ten steps down the road:
- What happens if you engage?
- What happens if you don't?
- How long is this fight going to take you away from more important work, or does it actually help you move the ball down the road on that work?
- Who will you have to call in for reinforcements? Is this where you want to spend your political capitol at work right now?
- Do you have a bigger fight or ask coming down the road you need to save your energy for?
- Will anything truly bad happen if you just let MG have her way?
Finally, ask yourself this: am I going to win this fight eventually anyway? If the answer is yes, ignore and move on. I'd say most of the time, engaging in fights with MGs are a waste of time. Fly above it, sister.
Educate Everyone. Particularly Everyone Around MG.
Sometimes when people repeatedly come at us at work we focus on them too much. And how could we not? They’re demanding our attention by picking at us – in emails, in meetings and more. But these distractions are not productive. They knock us off our game, we end up spending more time than necessary bitching about them or recovering from their tactics. This is easier said than done, but: ignore them. I'm rubber, you're glue. Talk to the palm, cause you ain't da bomb. Lalalalala I can't hear you. You've got other things to focus on...
Like building a team of allies. Nothing can be done alone - but how much do you really need MG? Pretend she, or her job function, wasn't available to you. Who would you work with to execute your ideas? Who would you have to get buy-in from to make things happen? There's your new focus. For every minute spent lamenting MG, you will now focus on building better relationships and educating the people around her. Talk about your ideas, your plan and the data that supports it - to anyone who will hear you out!
What this is not? This is not going over MG's head. This is not going to her boss and tattling on her (remember, snitches get stitches). This is simply educating and empowering a wider group of people to help drive your business' goals. Preferably with you.
Acknowledge Good Ideas & Success
Good ideas and success happens at all levels and from all corners of the business. That means sometimes MG is going to succeed. Sometimes, she might even school you on something. That's okay! This is when you flex your good karma muscle and swallow back some of that pride. You are a team player, and if a good idea helps the business, then that's what it's all about.
What this is not? This is not being sarcastic or condescending in meetings and emails. This is a genuine expression of gratitude or praise.
Don't Leave The Burn Book Out
Hey, we all need to vent sometimes! I get it. But keep that venting to a minimum when you're at drinks with coworkers. And certainly don't vent in company email. Save your rants for your mom, your BFF or your dog. Go ahead and write those scathing emails, from your personal account, and then delete them. Heck, sometimes I even say everything I'm just dying to say, great monologue style, in the shower or while I'm doing my hair in the morning. Get it out, but don't compromise your professionalism or your relationships at work in the process.
What this is not? This is not keeping it all bottled up inside, never letting anyone, ever know what's wrong.
Dealing with MGs at work is not fun - no matter what form they take on. But it's also a fact of life. Instead of curling up into fetal in your cubicle and letting them rule your work life, look at this as an opportunity to learn and grow at work. People skills, navigating internal politics and mastering the art of persuasion are the most transferable work skills you may have in your arsenal some day! How do you guys deal with MGs? Share below!