FOF Pat Heim wrote the book on catty women. Literally. Her best-selling guide to dealing with female aggression, In the Company of Women, is on Harvard Business School’s “Required Reading” list. So we sat down with Pat to get the Cliff’s Notes: Why do women tear each other down, and how can they be stopped?
- FOF: Why do women get catty with each other?
- It’s biological. You actually see this behavior in chimpanzees, our closest animal brethren. When a female chimp takes more than her fair share of food, or behaves as if she has more power in any way, she’s extremely ostracized by the other chimps. It doesn’t matter if you’re fifteen or fifty, if you behave as if you have more power than another female, she will go after you.
- FOF: If you’re entering a new workplace, or meeting a new group of women socially, how do you avoid this sort of aggression?
- Don’t demonstrate that you have more power than the other women, even if you do. Don’t talk about your fancy car, your fancy house or your fancy husband. Don’t brag about where your children went to school.
- FOF: But is there a way to speak honestly about yourself? For example, what if you want to host a party and you have a beautiful home. How do you position it so they don’t lash out?
- One of my best friends had a gorgeous house. And what she would often do is talk about where she came from—her humble beginnings. She had many ways to downplay it and to downplay herself.
- FOF: For example, “Oh, the mortgage is killing us . .”
- Exactly, you have to do that. And men will look at that behavior and think it’s crazy.
- FOF: Is there a difference in the workplace? What if you are clearly in a power position at work?
- One of the trickiest things for a woman is when she is promoted from within an intact work group of other women. When that happens, don’t display your power as if you are a man. You have to do subtle things to downplay your power: Get your own coffee; pick up your own faxes—maybe bring in donuts. Things a man would never have to do. At least initially, do things that don’t look boss-like. You want to send the message ‘I’m serving you.’
- Can you give an example of a woman who didn’t do this and had it backfire?
- I was reading an article in the New York Times yesterday about Hillary Clinton’s run for president. Her advisors told her that she had to behave like a man, so she did. I think she lost the votes of a lot of women as a result of that, because you can’t do that if you’re a woman.
- What should you do if a woman is talking behind your back–spreading a rumor about you?
- You need to get in her face. Don’t turn the other cheek; that allows her to continue doing her damage. Confront her and say, “Could it possibly be true that you’re saying ‘X’ about me?” Expect her to deny it: “Oh no, I would never say that about you!” Then thank her: “I’m so glad, because I would hope that if you had this kind of issue with me, that you would talk to me directly about it.” And don’t expect this to necessarily take care of it. If she does it again, confront her again. You have to teach her that if she talks about you, you will be in her face.
- Let’s say that, no matter what you do, you still have an employee who’s insubordinate. She’s not listening to you; she’s rolling her eyes at you. What do you do?
- If you have a female employee who doesn’t want to acknowledge who’s the boss, sit down and say, “I’d like to make sure that you and I are really clear in terms of what your goals are.” Go over her goals and how she’s going to be measured on them and how she’s going to get feedback, and follow through with it. In a very subtle way this says, ‘You’re the employee and I’m the boss, but I can help you.’
- What do you know if your good friend is blabbing something you’ve told her in confidence?
- Well, she’s just not a good friend. I would use the knowledge to distance myself from her. You can confront her, but I would not confide in her again.
- Can you give me an example in your own career when you’ve used these tactics?
- One of the things that I’m absolutely rabid about, is that nobody is allowed to talk about anyone behind their back. If you have an issue with someone else, you must talk to her directly. I want my employees to have the comfort of knowing that I never hear anybody being talked about negatively.
- What about people who say, “You’re setting women back with this. If I’m powerful, I want to project that power!”
- You can do that. And, you’ll have to deal with all the sabotage that comes along with it. Be my guest!
- So, on the flip side of this aggression, what are the benefits of working with a woman that you don’t get with a man.
- If it’s managed well, you get the relationship dimension–the soft landing. You get the understanding that if you cry, it’s okay. It’s okay to be emotional. Whereas men get all . . .
- Exactly. Flustered.
- Although, if you come in and cry to a man and say you want a raise, he might be so flustered that he gives it to you. You won’t get that with a woman.
- You’re right! That’s true . .
CEO of The Heim Group
Dr. Pat Heim, PhD. Is CEO of The Heim Group, a management consulting firm that specializes in gender issues. She received her PhD in communication from the University of Colorado. Her books include Smashing the Glass Ceiling, Learning to Lead and In the Company of Women: Why We Hurt Each Other and How to Stop.