Men Managing “Mean Girls”

Understanding Their Dynamics to Achieve Greater Results in Your Organization

by Kari Uman

The recently released movie, “Mean Girls” examines the relationships between high school girls and the cruelty they inflict upon each other by gossiping, backstabbing, and sabotaging one another. If this sounds suspiciously like the dynamics among the women in your office, you might be witnessing a grown-up version of “mean girls” adolescent behavior: women using passive-aggressive behavior (behavior that is neither direct nor obvious about who is the instigator) 10, 20 or 30 years later against other women to deal with anger, frustration, and feelings of powerlessness in the workplace. Women who engage in these behaviors shift the focus away from the organization’s mission or customer needs to the internal dynamics of the team.

Men managing teams of women often find this behavior confusing and bewildering. If you have no more idea how to deal with these behaviors now than you did when you were an adolescent (remember scratching your head in disbelief when you watched this behavior among many of the girls?) but want to see greater results from your team, here are some tips that will help you achieve your organization’s mission and shift the focus back on your customer’s needs.

  • Model Professional Behavior – The most important thing you can do is to model the behavior that you want others on your team to use. Make sure you are not engaging in the same behaviors that you want others to change – no gossiping, sabotaging, or backstabbing (yes, men can act this way, too.) You will most likely see people behaving respectfully towards others if you model that behavior. Acting unprofessionally gives people permission to do the same.
  • Develop Norms and Hold Employees Accountable for their Behavior – As a team, develop a list of norms or “rules” everyone wants to live by to create the kind of workplace where everyone can excel. Discuss what everyone will do to hold themselves and others accountable. Establishing norms gives people permission to intervene when they see someone going against the norms and raises the awareness of their own behavior.
  • Facilitate, Don’t Triangulate – Triangulating means using a third party (e.g. you!) to manage a relationship between 2 other people. If employees come to you separately with complaints about each other, bring both parties into your office and have them talk to each other. Act as a neutral party and facilitator. This will help employees learn how to be direct and sends the message that they need to learn how to manage their own conflicts. If your employees don’t have the skills to manage their own conflicts, send them to a conflict management workshop.
  • Train or Explain – Help your employees develop good communication skills, such as using “I” messages and feedback models. Using the following model (DESC) when giving feedback to your employees will teach them how to use it as well.
D – Describe the behavior or event without any judgments or assumptions regarding intent. Be specific as if you are videotaping a scenario. Say, “Yesterday, when you started whispering in the staff meeting” rather than “Why were you whispering in the staff meeting?” “Why” questions make people defensive.
E – Express your feelings or explain the impact the person’s actions had on you or others. Say, “I was embarrassed (feelings) because the CEO was there and it reflected badly on our office” (impact). People rarely see the impact of their own behavior and this brings their attention to it.
S – Specify what you want the person to do differently in the future. Say, “In the future, I’m counting on you to act professionally in all of our staff meetings.”
C – Consequences for changing. Positive reinforcement tends to motivate and move people towards action more effectively. “Thanks for being so responsive to my concerns. Your contributions are always valuable and I want to ensure that they will be seen in a positive light.”

These tips will help you reduce the destructive behavior among women on your team and allow the movie, “Mean Girls” to be about adolescence, not your work force.

© Kari Uman 2006