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Ten Tips for Winning with Mean Girls at Work

Career and Finance

Ten Tips for Winning with Mean Girls at Work

By: Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster

Have you encountered a mean girl at work? By “mean” we are referring to any woman whose actions seem cruel, callous, aggressive or unkind. A mean girl could be someone who seems jealous of your accomplishments, a woman who excludes you from important meetings, a female colleague who puts you down in public, or just someone whose poor work habits constantly get you into trouble. What ever her behavior is, it sets you off – leaving you feeling upset and unable to be your best professional self.

Dealing with another woman’s cold or unkind behavior can be challenging, but you don’t have to be held hostage by it. Here are ten tips for WINNING with any mean girl at work:

Don’t take her bait – When a mean girl attacks, she’s looking for a reaction from you. If she attacks you in a meeting, she’ll want to see you angry or crying or otherwise upset. Getting a reaction from you gratifies the mean side of her. Not taking the bait means that you do not respond emotionally to her behavior. The next time a woman says, “your presentation was a good cure for insomnia,” smile and respond, “Thank you.” Then let it go.

Don’t believe that what she says is true – This rule is especially important when dealing with a mean girl who likes to gossip and spread rumors. The pot stirring mean girl distributes bad news about others to feel better about herself. If she comes to you with gossip, don’t get drawn in. Tell her you’ve to get back to work, and she’ll get the message that you aren’t one of her gossip girls.

Don’t engage in negative speak about her – It’s tempting to want to badmouth or gossip with your friends about a woman who is being mean to you, but don’t do it. Why? Because you’re fueling the power struggle between the two of you. And you may end up looking like the pettier person. As difficult as it may be, your best bet is to rise above her behavior instead of counterattacking her with negative speak.

Be friendly without being friends – One of the common mistakes among women at work is to assume that every woman should be your friend. If you discover that one of your colleagues acts in ways you don’t like, you don’t have to shut her out. Rather, you can maintain a cordial relationship with her where you only discuss the work at hand – friendly but not friends.

Aim for professional behavior at all times – We call this taking the High Road. Acting professional towards all women in your workplace – regardless of how you feel about them – is a key component of “winning” with mean girls. Why? Because the less they see you reacting to their personal jabs, the more likely they are to back off.

Keep communication short and to the point – It’s common for a woman who feels hurt or slighted by a mean girl to want her adversarial colleague to like her. This tactic usually backfires. We suggest that you aim for short, focused interactions with this woman where you only discuss essential work-related topics. Think, ‘Proper inter-office communication – no more, no less.”

Find a safe person to confide in – It’s best to find a confidante outside of the office setting who can hear your story and offer solid advice. This could be a mentor, a coach, a family member, or a friend. The idea is to have a safe, wise, experienced woman listen to you and help you sort the situation out.

Don’t roll your eyes when she speaks – Women have a variety of non-verbal gestures that communicate disdain towards another woman. Rolling your eyes conveys impatience and irritation with what the other woman is saying. Check yourself to make sure you don’t do that or engage in other forms of non-verbal attacking.

Don’t avoid her –- In an attempt to limit your exposure to the mean girl’s barbs, you may want to hide whenever you see her or find ways to minimize any contact with her. But if you avoid her, she’ll know that you fear her – and that puts you in a more vulnerable position.

Don’t take anything she says or does personally – this is the ultimate lesson when dealing with a mean girl. Whatever she’s doing, it’s not about you – even though her taunts have your name on them. Mean girls generally have poor self-esteem and are easily threatened. You aren’t the first person she’s mean to, and you won’t be the last.


About the Authors: Katherine Crowley is Harvard-trained psychotherapist and Kathi Elster is a management consultant and executive coach. They are the co-authors of Mean Girls at Work – How to Stay Professional When Things Get Personal. Their firm, K Squared Enterprises, is dedicated to helping clients manage interpersonal relationships in the workplace. For more information go to

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