Dealing with mean girls — and boys — in the workplace

By | May 28, 2013

Though most mean girls and tough boys of middle and high school grow out of their sophomoric behaviors, some cling to them well beyond college and into adulthood. That means you may encounter this behavior in the workplace. Author Meredith Fuller, a psychologist in Australia, interviewed over 200 women about mean girls in the workplace for her book, Working with Bitches.

She discovered that certain personality “types” can make the lives of their coworkers miserable just as they did back in school. Grown women may feel some of the similar inhibitions they felt as teenagers when dealing with these difficult personalities in the workplace.

Here are some of the most difficult personality types and how to deal with them:

The Excluder:  She barely acknowledges you, pretends you don’t exist, fails to include you in important meetings and doesn’t bother giving you important information.

How to cope: Most women don’t like to be disliked or excluded from the group, but ask yourself if you really want to be this person’s friend anyway. There’s a good chance you don’t. Her cold shoulder may simply be pushing a button of an earlier school girl experience. But if you flip your perspective and don’t take it personally, you may enjoy not having the burden of having to interact with her.

This could be tricky, though, if you need information or input from her, but removing your emotional response will definitely ease these interactions. “Work out alternative ways to gather data or whatever else you need to do your job properly,” writes Fuller. Don’t try to push or goad her into communicating with you. You’ll just get the same treatment in spades. Instead, be civil and respond in a measured, mature way. That will help to diminish her effect on you.  

The Screamer:  He yells to intimidate, insult and get a reaction. Like Ari Gold of Entourage, he's tightly wound and barks instructions at full volume. He’s critical and thinks he’s the only one who can get the job done correctly. He wants you to drop everything and race after whatever he's demanding. He’s volatile, impulsive and throws insults around the office.

How to cope:  A screamer can’t hear you when he’s in a rage. So wait until he’s done before attempting to respond to his accusations. He probably doesn’t even want a response, because screaming is a one-way conversation. Trying to argue will only escalate it.

Once you’ve identified a screamer, you can brace yourself to some degree for his outbursts – though they may still take a toll on you. Look at your own response to screamers, which is often influenced by your own experiences growing up. Do you find it highly distressing? Do you find it amusing, like watching a child have a tantrum? Or can you keep an emotional distance? Understanding your own response may help you cope with him.

In any case, look for warning signs that he’s going to lose it and try to get away or end a conversation before it starts. If he starts ranting, you can say, “I’ll return to continue our discussion when you are calmer,” writes Fuller. Whatever you do, avoid being trapped in a small room with him.

The Toxic: She’s overly friendly and helpful, almost to the point of smothering you, but she can also turn nasty, gossipy and jealous. She wastes a lot of your time talking about personal matters—hers and yours—and makes you feel manipulated. A toxic person can also be like an emotional rollercoaster, oozing drama while complaining about people in her life or coworkers. Often her problems interfere with her work and you have to pick up the slack.

How to cope: It’s important to keep your boundaries with someone like this. It’s a good idea not to reveal too much about yourself to anyone until you know them well (so they can’t use this information against you if they turn out to be a jerk), and diplomatically cut them off so they’re not revealing too much to you.  Try to cut off any gossip, because if she’s gossiping to you, she’s gossiping about you to others. 

If she’s spilling her guts to you or moaning about the next catastrophe, you need to inform her that you can talk for 10 minutes but have to finish a project. Otherwise you truly won’t get any work done, and she’ll wind up draining you of your energy. “You need to resist feeling sorry for her or trying to address her needs,” writes Fuller.

No matter what type of difficult coworker you’re dealing with, the general rule of thumb is to try not to bottle up your emotions. Talk to someone you trust. Women tend to blame themselves when they’re being mistreated at work, and they may be worried about revealing the treatment to others.  But talking about these problems can go a long way in helping you cope.

Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She has authored several health books, including “Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility.” Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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