Everybody knows them, that ragtag parade of office meanies: the inveterate gossip, the underminer, the credit-stealer, the boss rolling his eyes or openly playing favorites. But discussions of workplace conflict too often focus on poor innocent me, persevering amid difficult coworkers. Less discussed is a more uncomfortable fact: All of us can be difficult to work with at times, in ways we’re usually blind to. This is particularly pernicious when you’re the boss, since you’re both too pressed for time to recognize your shortcomings and—let’s face it—even your most forthright direct reports may be reluctant to point out your flaws.
Office squabbles seem minor, but their costs to individuals and organizations can rack up. In a 2011 white paper, the Center for Resolution estimated a typical manager spends 20-40% of her time dealing with employee conflicts. Office disputes are a decisive factor in most employee departures, and 90% of cause-related terminations. Truly intractable conflicts can wind up in litigation with price tags of $50,000 to $100,000 in attorney fees.
Following their popular books Working for You Isn’t Working for Me and Working With You is Killing Me, consultants and authors Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster’s latest book, Mean Girls at Work: How to Stay Professional When Things Get Personal, probes an especially touchy subject. Now that more than half the U.S. workforce is women, Crowley and Elster argue that women’s subtler communications style is a bigger factor in workplace entanglements than ever.
The authors recently spoke with Fast Company about how bosses of both genders can tame their inner meanies and other insidious flashpoints in today’s world of work.
FAST COMPANY: There’s something true about the premise of your latest book, but also politically loaded. Why did you decide it was worth the flak to tackle this subject?
KATHI ELSTER: A client asked us to give a lecture for a women in technology conference about "women-haters," which they defined as women hating on other women in the workplace. Our response was basically "we don’t do that," to which they replied: The board is willing to pay you a lot. We decided in the end to give the lecture, and it was standing room only. We knew we’d hit a nerve with this topic, which made it very compelling to us.
KATHERINE CROWLEY: Women now earn 60% of college degrees, and about half of workforce is comprised of women. This is the time to offer concrete solutions to the difficult relationships between women at work. We knew exploring the dark side of women’s relationships was risky. But we think of it as the next step in feminism.
How much of the "mean girls" phenomenon do you attribute to women of different generations having conflicting ideas about women succeeding at work?
KC: The majority of competition we see is more peer-to-peer versus cross-generational. But sure, it exists. [Older] women who had to work hard to make it to the top take issue with younger women who come right in and start succeeding without as much struggle.
KE: Younger men and women can land advanced positions for their tech savvy, although they haven’t developed emotionally and professionally to the extent that older employees have. So older workers are left asking: "Who does she think she is? She’s a social media maven, but she doesn’t know how to dress properly or behave."
What other factors contribute to conflict in the workplace?
KC: So much mean behavior at work comes from covert competition. We’ve learned in our research that women have what we call a "tend and befriend" mechanism [towards others]. But at the same time, work is a competitive environment.
Women use non-verbal signals all the time with each other; we pick up on tone in ways that men are oblivious to. If you’re a female boss, you have to become conscious to what you’re communicating to underlings, especially women. For male bosses, there could be a world war happening around you that you’re not even aware of.
What are the top bad-boss behaviors—ways that bosses, male or female, are mean to subordinates without realizing it?
KC: Generally needy employees are tough [for bosses to handle], but the one that really brings out the mean is an employee who’s a nonstop talker. Bosses want them to get to the point; they don’t want to waste time and energy. It’s easy to get short with them, put them down, cut them off, or avoid contact.
KE: Bosses have trouble with coworkers who don’t get along—it’s like sibling rivalry. They want coworkers to just figure out how to work together. The boss’ response is typically: Why do I have to act like a schoolteacher? We’re called in a lot to mediate these issues. Those conflicts usually have little to do with work.
Bosses also have a hard time with employees with high sense of entitlement, who will never be satisfied with their pay or vacation policy. We advise managers in this position to cut their losses, or get as much as you can out of the situation, because those employees are ultimately going to leave.
KC: You should address this quickly, to see if it can be fixed. For a very young employee, you’d explain what a realistic perspective on work should be. If they’re receptive to your points and start correcting those perceptions, great. If they’re oblivious, that’s another matter.
Here’s another scenario that could bring out a boss’s mean streak: You inherit a team and discover it’s rampant with personal conflicts. How can you tame a culture in which everybody has beefs with everybody else?
KE: Our book Working for You is Killing Me deals with company culture. To turn a whole culture around, first you identify which part of that culture isn’t working. Maybe there’s no communication, so communication happens only via gossip. Or it’s a culture of fear: People felt neglected, all meetings were held behind closed doors. Turning that around takes time. It’s very important not to say one thing and do another—it’s like bad parenting, actually.
In a crazy office culture, good people tend to leave first. So you’re stuck with the headache employees.
KC: But there’s an upside to that, too. If you start to form a healthy culture, [negative] people will self-eliminate—they recognize the jig is up. To forge a new culture, often there has to be a sacrificial lamb. You terminate someone who’s unethical or not producing. Or you demote somebody living outside the new rules. It’s a symbolic act that puts your money where your mouth is.
You mentioned that reducing office conflict between women is the next step in feminism. What did you mean by that?
KE: What I want to accomplish with this book is start an open dialogue, to make women more conscious of these behaviors. As women move into higher and higher positions, just think what we could accomplish if we can learn to work together better.
KC: What we as women need to do is use our caring, our strongest asset, and temper it. We should learn to take things less personally and always focus on the high road. We wanted to uncover the seamy underbelly of this phenomenon, to normalize it. These mean tendencies are inherent in people; everybody has them. To move to the next level as a gender, we need to self-manage those tendencies.
[Image: Flickr user Daniel Jackson]