How To Handle Mean Coworkers

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about incivility:

In the past few years, I’ve noticed the presence of “mean girls” — unprovoked nastiness, incivility, rude, unprofessional, unwilling to share info or be a team player. How can I handle these women? Why does this jr. high behavior persist??? Why is it allowed?

Signed, Tired of Girls Behaving Badly

Dear Tired of Girls Behaving Badly:

Your observation that there are a lot of mean-spirited and mean acting people (including or especially women) is one that we hear from many frustrated people. I hear it in almost every group with which I am involved. (I’ve often had people talk to me about mean coworkers–and others later identified them as the meanest of the group!) I recall such mean cliques from my early employment time. Sometimes it was just irritating but often it was hurtful. Mostly it was–and is–demoralizing, irritating and distracting.Apparently when people get together, unless there is an unusual group willingness to be civil or an effective oversight presence (supervisor or manager), at least some part of the group easily turns into something like Lord (or Lady) of the Flies!

Dr. Gorden often suggests “talking about talk” within groups. He suggests that groups meet regularly to first, discuss what should be off-limits in behavior and talk to coworkers (no snubbing, shunning, etc. No obscenities, shouting or insulting remarks, etc.) And next, to plan for ways in which they can develop as a team through group and small group work and focused efforts to improve work. His signature phrase is “WEGO”, to convey the thought that people working together can achieve great things.

I have found that meetings of that type work best when a well-respected manager, supervisor or tenured employee moderates it. Otherwise it appears that one or a few people are preaching to others. That might not be the case in all settings.There are no easy solutions for dealing with coworkers who engage in mean, spiteful, gossipy and cliquish behavior. Often those who try to do so get caught up in some of the same behavior. I have seen almost visible lines drawn in offices between warring groups! No wonder work doesn’t always get done well or on time! People stay in a continual state of tension, with feelings of unease when they are around people or groups who gang up or are rude.Here are some options that have worked in some places and they might give you thoughts about your own workplace.
1.Give the supervisor or manager the lead role in improving the quality of communications. Some supervisors are not dependable for that role. They don’t want to be involved, so under the guise of not wanting to take sides they allow inappropriate things to happen. I often tell supervisors they really only have two options, if they are effective: a. Deal with both “sides” of the conflict and correct the behaviors of both. b. Decide which person or group seems to be the primary cause and deal with that. There is no such thing as an effective supervisor who “doesn’t get involved” in work.If you have an effective supervisor, talk to him or her directly and share your frustrations. Be specific and provide examples so a judgment can be made about the validity of your concerns. Keep in mind that reporting such concerns is not “snitching”, it is reporting something problematic and asking how to be part of solving the problem. Be able to tell the effect the behavior has on you or others and why it seems harmful or hurtful to you. Be open to hearing another perspective but also be appropriately insistent that you don’t want to just keep discussing it, you would like to the problem to stop.One of the most helpful things a person can do is to take general descriptions (“She’s so snippy acting.” “They’re so cliquish.”) and break them down to specific actions, tones of voice, facial expressions, etc. It takes away the labels and focuses on behaviors that can be stopped or changed.
2. Push back if you feel discourtesy is aimed at you. There is a difference between hostile questions, “Hey!! What did I do that got you all nasty acting??” And a confronting but courteous question, “When I talk to you it seems that you keep working and won’t look at me. What’s the matter?” A woman in a large office said her coworkers were discussing a small group of problem employees who refused to help others, often were rude and openly mocked coworkers. One of the people in the discussion said “Gwen, they’re afraid to act twitty to you because they know you’ll call them on it.”She said she didn’t think they were afraid of her, but they probably just figured it wasn’t worth the hassle of her asking them about their actions. If they acted rude or curt or frowned when Gwen walked into their cubicle area, Gwen wouldn’t just accept it and complain later, she asked about it directly. If she caught them exchanging looks, she would ask, in a pleasant tone, “I could see that you two exchanged looks when I asked that question. Is there something we need to talk out?”It only took a few times like that and they caught on that she would not slink away when they tried to gang up on her.A similar thing happened with another woman who was receiving curt responses from a newly transferred employee in another section. The woman wrote a reasonable question and the employee responded in a way that sounded irritated and mocking. The woman wrote back, “I’m perplexed about why you would write to me as though we were enemies. Let’s talk about it if that’s the case.”The employee immediately wrote an apology and said she was just tired. The truth was that she was pugnacious with everyone and still is–but not to the woman who called her on it! In those situations the women who pushed back had to accept that they wouldn’t win the others over. They just didn’t want to be treated badly by them.
3. Another approach worked better for another woman. She said when she realized she was “out” and most of the others were “in”, she decided to put her energy into being such a capable employee that her ties with managers would be very strong, thus giving her something positive at work and a sense of value as well as influence. Over the next three years several who had excluded her became disenchanted with the clique and started spending more time with her. She became the leader of the more mature, professional group–a position she didn’t seek, but that seemed to just develop.
4. Another view: In one workplace one of the team took the approach that she would be the cheerleader for good things and would stay positive, no matter what. She became so irritating that ultimately there were three groups…Mean Girls, Professional Women and Pollyanna! She almost single-handedly helped form an alliance between the two other groups, intent upon throttling her!!
5. The final option is to combine a bit of all of those. Stay focused on work, especially in work that involves others. Build alliances, not to fight back but to move forward. Be pleasant without seeming to be trying to ingratiate yourself. I often mention what it takes to have influence: · Credibility. · Value. · Effective communications. People are mean to those who have influence with them. The problem is that what you value may not be at all what others value. Age can make a big difference, as well as education, status, even appearance, fashion sense, education, or other issues valued by groups or individuals in them. It sometimes takes a bit of time to find out what it takes to gain a small measure of influence/insurance with some people who seem bound and determined to be mean.6. One last thought. More saintly people than I am might say that people don’t intend to be rude or that they don’t realize they are hurtful. I don’t agree.

I think people who habitually are curt, dismissive, mocking or unfriendly, or who laugh as others walk by or shun people who are not to their liking, do so with full knowledge of their impact–and they like it that way. They know exactly what they are doing and they could stop it if they choose to. So, that brings up back to where I started. This is a supervisory and managerial issue because it harms the workplace and can be prevented and corrected. However, employees may have to be the ones to insist that the behavior be made to stop. That is when listing the specific behaviors and the negative effects of them are needed.

I wish I could have given you some surefire method for making things different or better, but I don’t think you expected that anyway! However, that doesn’t mean nothing can be done or that things won’t improve. I mentioned Dr. Gorden’s concept of WEGO. It reflects the need for a workplace with a mean streak to be cleaned up by the whole group or at least several people in it. Maybe you can take the leadership role in that process. Start by talking about building the best possible relationships with internal customers from other sections. That often helps in every way. Then, move to external customer service. Those conversations and that reading, training and practice can help right where you are.Best wishes in all of this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know any solutions you develop or ideas you have tried.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.