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Liz Bentley: We need to re-evaluate the workplace 'mean girl'

“The personal analysis is unfair … it seems as if you’re damned no matter how you live your life,” says the executive coach.
Liz Bentley is the founder and president of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs.
Liz Bentley is the founder and president of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs.Miller Hawkins

I have received several requests to coach female executives, sometimes CEOs, who are described as “mean.” These “mean girls” are usually extremely competent and deliver results. And they are often positively described as funny, caring (in certain situations), smart, driven and good at office politics. However, their “mean girl” tendencies of being impatient and having tempers get them in trouble and, in some cases, sidelines their career progress.

Additionally, their peers and subordinates analyze their personal lives in unflattering ways – unfairly putting them under a microscope to uncover why they are so mean and angry. I’ve heard everything including, they’re “single and have nothing else to do,” they’re “married with kids and so they’re overburdened and stressed.” Or, they bring up money. For example, ‘they have to work’ or ‘they are rich and don’t have to work so why are they doing this?’

The bottom line is the personal analysis is unfair. There’s no winning combination; it seems as if you’re damned no matter how you live your life.

Mean Boys

I have also worked on many cases of men behaving badly in a similar fashion. And funny enough, I’ve never heard them called a “mean boy.”

Like women, they are described as successful, smart and driven, but are also said to be “great guys.” They too tend to lose their temper and when they do, people get intimidated and it can shut them down. They are known to embarrass people in meetings with degrading comments, inappropriately blaming others for miscommunications and often don’t listen to other people’s perspectives.

They are rarely described as “mean.” Instead I hear “tough,” “impatient,” “angry,” and “frustrated.” On top of that, they are sometimes even revered and respected for their aggressive and seemingly masculine style, overlooking their bad behavior. And rarely does anyone comment on their personal lives in a negative manner, even when an aspect in their personal life raises eyebrows. While these “mean boys” do get put into coaching in an attempt to correct their aggressive style, they are still considered “great and likable guys” whereas the women are not!

The double standard

Clearly, there is a double standard when it comes to “mean girls” and “mean boys” in the workplace. I believe the answer lies in the middle. Men need to see that the good results they drive do not erase their mean and inappropriate behavior. We also need to lighten up on women and stop the messaging that high standards are mean.

Top performing women can get mad at incompetency. I have seen this again and again from the likes of Serena Williams at the U.S. Open final, to Martha Stewart building an empire while being called a “bitch.”

We must get over the feeling that women become mean in their pursuit of excellence and understand why the adjective “mean” is typically only associated with women and not men. Also, why does this make them less likable? Results and winning trump all in our capitalist economy, so we should step it up and raise our game to meet theirs.

Tips for navigating

If you are dealing with a man or woman you think is being unnecessarily aggressive, follow these steps – in this order – to help quell the behavior.

1. Lean in, not out.

When people are upset and being mean, we have a tendency to push away from them and hide, shut down or just avoid them. But often that makes it worse. It’s better to move toward them and look to fix the issue or understand it.

2. Find the source of the problem.

What are they upset about? Get to the root of the problem by asking questions, staying calm and being neutral.

3. Empathize!

Do not judge them for their approach; it will only make things worse. Once you have leaned in and understood the problem, empathize with them. Try to understand their position and let go of your own so that they feel understood. Often the mean person does not feel identified with and, male or female, feels isolated and judged from their behavior. They know they’re not putting their best foot forward so empathizing with them may help them evolve.

4. Strategize to solve the issue.

Now you’re ready to try to solve the issue. You know the facts and the emotions behind the problem and can start to take steps to solve it. Do not move to strategy until you have thoroughly gone through steps one to three.

5. Give Feedback.

Let the person know they are coming off mean and why it’s unproductive. Highlight how it makes others feel and impacts the team. Especially stress the negative effects that will concern the mean person. For example, if they are trying to grow the business, make more money or shift the culture, give specifics on how their meanness may alter results.

Let’s reframe our thinking of “mean” people. Stop the personal judgement and empathize with them so that you can get to the source of the struggle. You will be able to have a much better experience at work and drive better results all around.

Liz Bentley is the founder and president of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs. She is a nationally recognized keynote speaker and executive coach to top leaders and teams across a broad range of industries