Spill the Truth: Mean Girls at Work

Spill the Truth: Mean Girls at Work

Kevin writes, “The best way for me to describe my situation at work is to compare it to the movie Mean Girls. There are two women in my department who constantly undermine my authority. They belittle me in front of clients and talk behind my back to everyone. To make matters worse, they’re incompetent. They transferred from another department as my peers, but I’m the only one in our group with any industry expertise, and our leaders rely on me for everything. I want to talk with my boss and convince him to promote me. The whole situation is making me miserable, and I’m convinced that unless they report to me, I will never have any peace.”

Kevin, it sounds like you can’t take one more mean moment. I’m with you! But, I’m not sure that a promotion will fix your problem. Similar to mean girls at school, mean girls at work are motivated by personal gain, and they are obsessed with upgrading their social status, which means 1) they only align themselves with the most influential individuals in the organization and 2) they step on anyone who obscures their path. Unfortunately, that can mean…once a peer…always a peer.

Now, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask for a promotion. You should. And we’ll get to that in a moment. But first…let’s talk about your communication dilemma. Should you rat your coworkers out as mean girls? Should you spill the truth? Simply put, no. And here’s why:

It’s human nature—people root for the underdog. The moment you point out to your boss that your coworkers are ridden with “mean-girl” guilt, you’ll inadvertently stir up feelings of protection in him. Researchers consistently report that those who are viewed as disadvantaged arouse people’s sense of justice. Rather than portraying yourself as worthy of a promotion, you’ll risk looking like a bully, especially if those mean girls have convinced your boss of their competency, which I’m sure they have…probably by taking credit for your work.

So, what can you do? …Makeover those mean girls.

You’ve heard the phrase, dress for the job you want not the job you have…well Kevin, I want you to behave for the job you want not the job you have. Treat those mean girls as if they are your direct reports before they become your direct reports. Begin to mentor them….show them the industry ropes…extend whatever degree of trust—however small—you feel they deserve. This will help you do two things: 1) demonstrate your outstanding leadership skills—you know, the best leaders lead the worst followers well and 2) make allies of your enemies.

It’s much easier to make allies of mean girls than most people realize…all you have to do is praise the heck out of them. Trust me, mean girls crave compliments.

Find ways to praise their behavior, even if it’s something as simple as, “I like the way you ended that email. It was clear and professional,” when they write the words “thank you.” You’ll have to be creative if they’re truly incompetent, but even the smallest amount of praise will go a long way.  And move slowly. Wait for authentic opportunities to praise.

Now, back to how to ask for a promotion. Follow these simple steps:

  • Focus solely on your contributions—make no mention of the mean girls.
  • Shoot it to your boss straight, “I feel strongly that I deserve a promotion.”
  • List a few of your most significant accomplishments focusing on the benefits to the company.
  • Remind him of the evidence by saying “I know you recognize my worth because of the <insert specific rewards/recognitions/email accolades, etc.>.
  • Point out (cleverly and judiciously) how you have made, and how your promotion will make, your manager successful.
  • Reinforce your committed to the company with a statement like, “I love my job, and I want to continue making contributions, but in order for me to remain engaged I need to feel adequately positioned.”

Wait for his response and be prepared to hold your ground and/or ask him to detail what else you can do to earn the promotion.

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