Women to Women Relationships

Destructive Dynamics That Can Impact Teams

Many women bring to office relationships a sensitivity that enhances teamwork. A few who don’t bring that kind of sensitivity seem to create endless frictions, especially with their female colleagues. To some of us observing this behavior it feels disturbingly familiar, like a deja vu of seventh grade, when the girls spent most of the day gossiping, backstabbing, and sabotaging one another. Sad to say, your observation is accurate; these destructive dynamics between and among female co-workers look like adolescent behavior because it is. Young women learn to interact this way with one another in their adolescent years and you are seeing the same behavior transferred to the workplace.

This revelation came to me recently as I thought about the behavior of my 14-year-old daughter and her friends. My daughter, whom I will call Laura, has always been socially adept, surrounded by a large group of friends. But when she was eleven or so, she and her girlfriends began to behave in a disturbing way: whenever they were together they would trash some girl (not present, of course) who they had decided no longer made it with their group and was on the outs. They examined this poor girl’s every action and found it worthy of scorn; they belittled her, gossiped about her and either ostracized her completely or kept her in the crowd just so they could make fun of her. The girls in the “in crowd” engaged in passive aggressive behavior (behavior which was not direct but done covertly) to establish and maintain a position of power over the girls on the “outs” who were often helpless to do anything about their one-down position.

Several recent books describe this phenomena and the damage it does to girls’ self-esteem. What has struck me after reading these books and listening to interviews with some of the girls who were their subjects, is that this behavior is damaging to all the girls — the attackers as well as the attacked. It takes a tremendous amount of effort and energy to carry out this kind of passive aggressive behavior. Think of the energy and courage it takes the girls on the “outs” to get through each day. And think of the fear and insecurity this behavior breeds: every girls knows that tomorrow she may be the odd girl out, the one who can’t do anything right.

So if we fast-forward 15, 20 and 30 years, you see some women in your workplace, trapped in the behaviors they learned in their middle school lunchrooms. I am sorry to report that what you are experiencing is commonplace. My experience as a coach (and a woman) has convinced me that many women use passive-aggressive behavior (behavior that is neither direct nor obvious about who is the instigator) to deal with anger, frustration, and powerlessness in the workplace — and that their focus is often other women. While there are many explanations — power, politics and different behavioral expectations for women than for men — the results are the same: lots of energy expended on managing these dynamics rather than on your organization’s mission or your customer’s needs.

Most organizations ignore this behavior because executives have no idea how to deal with it. Too often, they do nothing more than hope that the women engaged in these destructive actions will see the light on their own and miraculously morph into mature professionals. It’s a nice fantasy, but it won’t happen. Intervention is required to help these women change. In my experience, there are three basic ways to create worthwhile change:

  • Individual coaching is appropriate for the women engaged in these unhealthy dynamics. A coach can help them examine their behavior and develop new, more productive strategies for dealing with conflict and frustration. 360° feedback (a mechanism that provides feedback from superiors, peers, subordinates and customers) conducted by written assessment or interviews can provide data from multiple perspectives to the individual/s. The data can help them understand serious negative consequences their adolescent behavior has on peers, customers and on the organization as a whole.
  • Team/group coaching is an alternative or complementary approach that can help members of the group establish norms of behavior to which they will hold themselves and others accountable while creating a positive framework for team behavior. It also addresses the insidious dynamics that causes otherwise adult individuals to behave immaturely.
  • Mentoring from a woman in a leadership role (perhaps within one’s own organization) who exemplifies professional behavior can serve as a model for other women. The female leader can provide real-time feedback to women who want to change their behavior and help them develop strategies for handling specific situations.

Here’s an example. I was recently asked to intervene at a mid-sized company where problems with a high performing female vice-president had reached a crisis point. The VP’s four female subordinates had recently gone over her head to a higher ranking executive and announced that they would all quit because they could no longer tolerate their boss’s emotionally abusive behavior any longer. These subordinates recognized that their boss was under a great deal of stress due to an unreasonably strenuous workload. Nevertheless, they were unwilling to work for someone who voiced criticism of them publicly, was dismissive, condescending, and unapproachable, and demonstrated no interest in them as people. This was not the first time senior management had heard complaints about the Vice-President, but the situation had not previously reached this level of friction.

The Senior Executive, needing to respond to the complaints but also wanting to keep a valued and productive Vice-President, decided to bring in a coach to defuse the situation. That’s where I came in. In partnership with a male colleague, we proposed a two-track process. We would both work with the VP in a two-on-one coaching arrangement and work with her subordinates as a group, parallel to our work with the VP.

We began by interviewing all of the parties and used the data to help the VP design an action plan focused on the behaviors she needed to change. She focused on being more available, listening more attentively and providing constructive, private feedback. We assigned her readings, self-observations, activities and practices to help her become aware of her own behavior and change it over time. To prevent the subordinates from undermining the VP as she attempted to change, we also met with them as a group on a monthly basis to help them sort out their feelings and expectations. This helped them make their own behavioral changes in the way they dealt with the VP. By the end of the six-month process, the VP had changed her behavior substantially and the team was willing both to support those changes and gently confront her when she reverted to “default” behavior.

Twenty years ago, women in management were rare birds. That’s not true today when women dominate many workplaces and companies. So recognizing and dealing with this all-too-common problem is essential to maintaining a successful, functioning organization. Women can bring really positive qualities to the workplace. When they work together, they can be wonderfully supportive, productive and help each other move up in the organization. On the other hand, they can undermine organizational spirit and customer service when they lapse into destructive passive aggression that drains, rather than creates, energy and morale. So if you want to get the best from the women in your organization, don’t avoid the issues. Intervene and give women (and their male co-workers) the tools they need to change.

© Kari Uman 2004