I recently ran into a former PTA Mom who had shared with me one of the most miserable volunteer positions ever: serving as hall monitors at a middle school. We spent most of the year dealing with a particularly difficult group who thrived on the Mean Girl culture. As we talked about the gossip, bullying and petty meanness that we battled that year, my friend made the observation that as bad as those girls acted, it wasn’t nearly as distasteful as when those same behaviors show up in adults. In fact, search for items relating to “mean girl culture” on the internet, and it will only take .42 of a second to return over 102 million hits. That is a good indicator that this particular form of bad behavior is not only prevalent but a problem. It is a good for us to realize that Mean Girl culture can hit at any age — and with either gender — and can end up hurting our careers if we don’t take steps to avoid it.
Here are four signs you may be sabotaging your own career by adopting Mean Girl culture:
You undermine your peers under the pretense of sharing helpful information.
We’ve probably all done it, and we often tell ourselves we’re just being ‘helpful’, but if you find yourself taking your boss or a coworker aside to make sure they are aware of a failure or fault of your colleague, you may be participating in Mean Girl culture. There are times when it is absolutely necessary to point out problems with someone else in the office, and it isn’t spiteful or petty to look out for the success of a project by reporting issues with someone who is failing to meet deadlines or creating problems for the team – if you’ve already addressed the issue with your colleague to no avail. But if you find yourself regularly getting on the good side of the boss by sharing insider information, you may find that it backfires when your colleagues discover that you didn’t have their back.
You participate or instigate water cooler gossip.
At some point in your career, you’ve probably attended an event where one of the people in your group spoke up with the following question, “Did you hear about so-and-so?” You circled in a bit tighter as the group listened and then discussed this latest bit of gossip. You may have even promised not to tell anyone else, but, most likely, you did.
Gossip makes us feel special; it makes us feel trusted enough be included in the secret. It also makes us feel superior to whomever happens to be the target of the current gossip. And if we’re brutally honest with ourselves, we’ll likely admit that we enjoy the bonding that takes place with our peers as we share the secret; we feel like we’re an even tighter group by the secret we now share.
But when you participate — even just by listening — you are putting every other person in your circle on notice that this is what you’re willing to do to them when they’re out of earshot. Gossip builds distrust within a group, which, in turn, can lead to missed opportunities in our career, especially if the gossip we’ve carried later proves to be false or highly embellished. It’s also good to remember that gossip invariably makes its way full circle, and when the person we’ve betrayed discovers that we participated in spreading rumors, we’ve burned a bridge not only that person but with everyone in their circle. Whether we live in a major urban center or in a small town, we can’t afford to hurt relationships that might be with the very person deciding the fate of our career. Next time someone in your group asks you if you’ve heard something about someone else, just remove yourself from the group. Your career will thank you for it.
You pick sides in a cat fight.
There is little that feels more awkward in the work place than when you are stuck in the middle between two coworkers who dislike each other and work to recruit others in the office to pick sides. And just like schoolyard politics when there was a falling out between two of your friends, if you pick sides, you’ll be the one that is out in the cold when the two of them end up making up and choosing to be friends again. Unless someone has conducted themselves dishonestly, harmed another individual, or conducted themselves in such a manner that avoiding them is the prudent course of action, do everything possible to remain neutral when your coworkers get in a spat. If they don’t make up, you’ll still be able to work on projects with either of them. And if they do patch up their differences, they won’t be able to share with the other anything nasty you might have said had you chosen to pick sides.
Playing Dirty With Your Competition
You might have caught the story in the news about Uber playing dirty with their competition. And whether their practices prove to be legal or not, the company took a big risk with their current and potential customers becoming disgusted enough by their tactics to take their business elsewhere. While no one is expected to give up opportunities or take a hit to their own career so that someone else can benefit, it is also wise to take care that we don’t sabotage the efforts of others in an attempt to gain the upper hand. Competition can be a good thing, and it can help us hone our skills and bring our A-game, but when we stoop to playing dirty to get ahead, we run the risk of it backfiring and hurting us even more in the long run.