Peggy Drexler Ph.D.

Our Gender, Ourselves

You've Become The Office's Alpha Mean Girl—Now What?

What to do if you've become a queen bee

Posted Apr 12, 2013

After a dozen years spent logging long hours, working weekends, and making other sacrifices in the name of cancer research, Natalie got a new job, joining a big-time lab as department head and chief researcher in her sub-specialty. It was a huge promotion. From the beginning, Natalie felt immense pressure to convince her new bosses and co-workers—maybe even herself—that she was smart and talented enough to lead an entire team. That she deserved to be there. She was, after all, the only female department head, and she was reminded of this fact constantly.

And so Natalie gave herself strict rules for how she thought a manager should behave. She didn’t socialize after work with anyone who reported to her, or even joke around much while in the office. She never shared details of her personal life with her staffers, nor asked for theirs. She wanted to be taken seriously. She wanted her team’s respect, not their friendship. More, she wanted to stay in charge of them.

Which also meant she needed to feel that she was better than them, and to believe that they thought she was, too. To this end, over the course of her first year, Natalie fostered a department known for being cutthroat and competitive. Everyone worked hard, and no one had fun. She made her very high expectations—for herself and others—known, but she was so consumed with keeping her own job that she didn’t try to mentor, or even teach, anyone. Her thought: If they weren’t good enough to cut it on their own, then they shouldn’t be here. It was, after all, a highly competitive field, and she’d spent many years working very hard to achieve all that she had. She was especially hard on the women, reasoning that they, like she, needed to be tougher than the men in order to prove themselves worthy of their positions if only because there were far fewer women among them.

“And then one day I realized that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d complimented someone at work,” she told me. “I never advocated for anyone or thought anybody who worked for me was good enough to deserve a raise or promotion. I was a real whip-cracker, and sort of mean, too.” The attitude got short-term results, but she had high staff turnover. Whenever someone quit, naturally she threw a fit and let him or her know they were never very good anyway. “I worried my bosses would view a staffer’s quitting as some deficiency in me, so I took quitting very, very personally,” she said. In fact, she was right to worry—and to take it personally. Her staffers, I suspected, were quitting because Natalie, a classic Queen Bee, had created a work environment that was impossible to stay in.

I’ve lately been studying the Queen Bee phenomenon as it relates to the modern day workplace. For decades, we’ve witnessed this phenomenon, which is defined by women who achieve success opposing the similar rise of other women, most typically in male-dominated fields. Although one might think these women would be eager to support other women out of a sense of solidarity, too often patriarchal work cultures create a situation in which the few women who rise to the top become obsessed with maintaining authority. Like Natalie, these women aren’t necessarily born Queen Bees, but become them. Now, with the numbers of women in management positions rising so, too, are the incidents of female bosses who bully, abuse, over- criticize, or worse.

Julie, a creative director at an ad agency, realized she was a Queen Bee the day she noticed that she’d caused a giant argument among two of the designers on her team—yet again. “I’d created such an atmosphere of competition that people were constantly fighting,” she said. “But the real problem was that I secretly liked it.” The more her employees struggled, the stronger and more needed she felt as a leader.

Recognizing that you’ve become a Queen Bee, or a bad boss of any kind, is, of course, the first step to making a change. How can you tell if you’re a Queen Bee? You think you know everything. You feel more secure when others fail. You micromanage. Your employees always disappoint you. You purposefully make things difficult for those you don’t like.

And change you should. In a 2012 Gallup survey, 60 percent of U.S. government employees reported being miserable at work not because of low pay or poor benefits, but because of their bosses. Studies show that bad bosses aren’t just a hit for morale; they’re a hit for business and profitability. A 2012 Harvard Business Review report noted that even expensive company perks like great health insurance and rewards systems mean nothing for productivity and loyalty if the boss is a bad leader. Good bosses, meanwhile, lead employees to increase revenue, as proven by various studies conducted at big box stores like Sears, J.C. Penney, and Best Buy. In the case of Sears, when employee satisfaction improved by 5 percent, customer satisfaction improved enough to lead to a significant increase in revenue. This is why, more and more, underlings aren’t just subject to review but are asked for their feedback on their supervisors as well.

A few simple ways to shed the title of Queen Bee and begin to be a better boss:

Learn To Teach. Queen Bees think that holding others back secures their own position. But, in fact, studies show that those who mentor are more professionally successful than those who don’t. A 2012 study at the University of Texas, Austin, found that those who mentored gained a better understanding of their own strengths and limitations, solidified their understanding of certain career-related concepts, and were happier besides.

Pipe Down—And Then Up. It’s easy to spot a rude, belittling Queen Bee, whether that Bee is your boss or yourself. But Queen Bees are also defined by what they don’t do—that is, ask good questions, reach out to others, and praise and reinforce good behavior. Aim to recognize the good work or efforts of at least one employee a day. If you can’t find anything to compliment, sit staffers down and find out why they’re struggling, and how you can help.

Treat Staffers As Individuals, Not A Group. Often, Queen Bees act the way they do because they feel overwhelmed. Instead of directing a group, aim to have individual relationships with each team member—know her strengths, her weaknesses, and the specific priorities you hold for her. Your job—your responsibility to your own boss—is to improve the company, rather than hold it back. Others’ failings don’t reflect well on you. The bottom line is that as a boss, you are, truly, only as good as your worst employee.

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at

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