In 2017, The Atlantic published an article examining the troubling reality of women bullying other women in the workplace. In it, author Olga Khazan interviewed women across a wide variety of disciplines about their experiences working with other women and found that their “stories formed a pattern of wanton meanness.” While many women report wonderful experiences of being mentored by other women in leadership positions, just as many can point to times when it felt like they were stuck in the adult and professional version of Mean Girls.
Even more perplexing is that this behavior often comes from women who profess to be pro-women and centers around hard-fought workplace victories, like maternity leave and work-life balance. London-based consultant Cecilia Harvey, founder of Tech Women Today, calls this behavior “Queen Bee Syndrome.” Harvey conducted a survey and found that 70% of the women she interviewed had been bullied by a female boss.
If Harvey’s data is accurate and can be extrapolated and her findings applied to working women on this side of the pond, there are a lot of Queen Bees buzzing around. Here are three strategies for making sure you’re not one of them:
Early in her career, Laura Gray, a mother and communications executive for a technology company, found herself in the unique position of reporting to a woman who was pregnant while simultaneously managing a pregnant colleague. Stuck in the middle of this maternity sandwich, Gray admits that she didn’t always fully understand the challenges of being pregnant or a mother while excelling in a high-pressure role. Furthermore, Gray was part of an all-female team in a company and field otherwise dominated by men, heightening the intensity of the interactions.
We don’t compete. We collaborate. It’s a bit clichéd, but it’s true.
“I’d like to think that I’ve always been a good team player and committed to supporting both my superiors and the people who work under me for the good of the company,” says Gray. Yet, it wasn’t until after her daughter was born that she realized just how difficult it can be, especially early on, to be a parent while still performing to the level that she was used to and expected of herself and her teammates.
“Until I had the experience of being physically pregnant and having a child, I didn’t realize how valuable it is to have other moms on your team to support and even cover for you,” Gray explains. “It sounds a little ridiculous, but when you’re pregnant and have to run to the bathroom every five minutes, you really appreciate it when a colleague covers for you on a conference call.”
At this point in her life, with a child of her own and everyone reporting to her, Gray emphasizes to her team members how their success depends on how well they function as a unit. “We don’t compete. We collaborate. It’s a bit clichéd, but it’s true. When you can get women to stop seeing each other as competitors or threats, that’s when things change.”
Gray explains that this means constantly checking her own motivations and ego when making decisions and managing people. “Even if my outward actions haven’t changed much, my attitude and motivations have definitely shifted,” she states. “I want everyone on my team to succeed and for us to perform to the highest level—but I also want us all to actually sleep and spend time with our children and be able to log-off at a reasonable hour. I prioritize those things for myself and the people under me in a way that I didn’t before I had a family.”
It sounds like fairly obvious advice, but it’s not always easy to make a graceful transition from ruling the roost at home to managing the team at the office. In fact, a 2016 article by Mark Murphy lists five common management pitfalls that bosses often make, trapping themselves and their employees in a harmful parent-child dynamic.
While it can be completely appropriate to use the phrase “because I said so” on your five-year-old, this style of management doesn’t do much to cultivate problem ownership or creative thinking in the adults who report to you and can ultimately undermine any respect you hope to command.
Gray recounts times in her own experience when her former boss would drop the ball. “She’d check out and miss something big, then turn around and lose her temper and blame me for her mistakes,” she shares. “I’m sure she was exhausted and stressed trying to do her job while being a wife and a mother, but instead of apologizing or asking for help, she’d give me a present. Like a mother who loses her temper and yells at her child and then tries to make up for it by handing the kid a cookie.”
Instead, Gray has learned the power of “direct, clear, and constructive communication about expectations, assignments, roles, goals, and areas that need improvement.” This is a vast improvement over scare tactics, emotional manipulation, and passive-aggressive or veiled statements.
She believes that, “when everyone knows their role and knows what’s expected of them—and when they have the tools and authority to actually execute—things work so much better.” To this end, Gray goes out of her way to make sure that her employees know that she wants them to ask questions and regularly schedules check-ins to go over big assignments or complicated issues. By modeling direct communication, she’s cultivated a work culture where no one is allowed to stew in their own confusion or frustration.
Lori Dykstra, a former assistant principal, small business owner and mother of three boys, believes that it’s important to communicate clearly and kindly. “Don’t just think about what you want to say, think about what you want the other person to hear. And then say it in the kindest way possible,” she advises.
Finally, Gray believes that avoiding acting like a Queen Bee can be as simple as putting yourself in the seat of the other person. “I had a business trip overseas on the calendar for the month after I finished maternity leave. I knew I had to take my baby with me so I did a lot of planning and preparing ahead of time to try to take as much anxiety and stress out of it. And of course, when I got there my pump needed a special electrical adapter I didn’t have and I was about to go into a tailspin about how my baby would starve while I was in meetings.”
Thankfully, one of the women who organized the event went out her way to get Gray what she needed, saving the day. “She could’ve made me feel like an idiot and a terrible mother or said that it wasn’t her job, but instead she was really gracious. And I think that’s another important thing, to have a lot of grace and patience for ourselves and each other.”