Alpha Females

Helping women make the most of their leadership qualities.

Survival Tips for Women and Men

Dealing with mean girls who became mean women at work.

By: Dr. Gaby Cora

Given the popularity of my 2009 blog Do Mean Girls in School Become Mean Women at Work? and the comments, I thought it may help some of us bring some light to this very pervasive problem we experience both in school as well as at work; that is, that time when people have graduated and moved on to being “grown ups.”

Chances are that your once-mean girl classmate and your now-mean female boss still thinks she can get away with her behavior. Why is this? Because she always has. She continues to rule by terrorizing people around her, she continues to demean others, she continues to create animosity and backstabbing, and she continues to be paranoid that someone will take her position away. The worst part is she’s partly right. People will try to take her power away if she shows some weakness, vulnerability, or flaw. The problem is, the damage may already be done and it may have cost too many good people to leave the group once she has been pulled out of power.

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Want to try your hand at being a researcher? Try this experiment: attend your next high school reunion and see what has become of your classmates. Do they joke the same way they used to? Are they just pointing out the times in which they made fun of you? Are they talking about making fun or taking advantage of other people these days? You might feel as if you’re back in high school. And you may ask yourself: do people really change?

The simple answer is yes they do, but only if they want to.

I just came back from my class reunion—we decided to spend a weekend together as a group. Many of us had been in touch throughout the years, a few had not been in contact with anyone, and some have not been heard from by anyone since high school. Overall, everyone who attended tried to get along, despite any hard feelings from high school.

Having attended an all-girls school from the ages of four to seventeen inspired me to write Alpha Female: Leader of A Pack of Bitches. Although the title and chapters are humorous, the book does address the less-than-funny points of dealing with negative female leaders. These are some specific suggestions that will hopefully help you and make your career more positive:

1. Try your best: When you create a positive environment and you are the first one to try your best, you will tend to receive the best of others as well. Do you think you always try your best and still only receive mean gestures in return? Are you sure you were trying your very best without any resentfulness, any negativity, any wondering about what mean things you were going to get back? This is like a mini post-traumatic stress disorder symptom, we’re primed to wait for the inevitable nasty comments and then those comments appear! Instead, make sure your focus is on positive deeds. Avoid any sarcasm or potentially negative comments while doing your work. It is difficult to keep your balance and continue to strive in a positive direction if you receive negative feedback. However, in reality, we are always exposed to negative environments and it’s up to us to stay positive.

2. Mind your own business: There is nothing more distracting than people bothering you while you are trying to do your work. It is very easy to lose focus on what you really want to do when mean people are saying nasty things about you. Minding your own business will help you survive and thrive while you rescue the good in you rather than waste precious time worrying about what others say or think about you.

3. Collaborate with good people: Choose your companions wisely and focus on the great things you can do with other people. It may be tempting to associate yourself with people with power, but make sure power comes with integrity and aligned values. When mean people terrorize others, the terrorized respond to those in power with fear and not out of voluntary following. Focus on working together on positive projects with positive outcomes.

4. Never be vengeful: The combination I describe in Alpha Female about negative leaders—there are positive leaders too, thank goodness—is a combination of low self-esteem, narcissism, paranoia, and mood swings. These mean people are plotting the worse possibilities against themselves and they worry others will carry vengeful conspiracies against them. My best suggestion is: leave it alone! Remember I said they were partly right? Mean people are their worst enemy and they usually crumble as a result of their own doings, they don't need your help to fall and you need to stay safe.

5. Look for alternatives: If you are a boss and you know you have a mean manager, fire him or her. Even if they are “productive” and high performers, negative leaders poison the work environment and asphyxiate the life out of people. If you are in such situation, ensure you look at other options and never convince yourself that you can only have that one job. You are worth a lot more than that.

Gabriela Cora, M.D., M.B.A., hosts Dr. Gaby's Take: Make Life Interesting. She’s a medical doctor with a master's in business administration.

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