‘We have a lot of women here. Is that a problem?’
That is the interview question asked by my soon to be first boss. It has stayed in my brain for over thirty years. First, because I couldn’t understand why working with a group of women would be a problem. And later, because it became all too clear why.
Now, as I work with clients to reduce attrition at the middle management level, it’s obvious that it’s a real, yet often ignored, problem.
According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) 2014 study, 68% of bullying in the workplace is female on female action. It’s a petri dish of unresolved high school behavior that has far greater implications than leaders have paid attention to.
Mostly because unlike their male counterparts (yes, men bully also), female workplace bullying often takes place under the radar. Rather than overt confrontations, there are under the breath comments meant to chip away at a perceived rivals reputation, refusal to support ideas and projects, and the inability to acknowledge anything good about their target.
Unlike high school, WBI confirms that the objects of the bullying are often the more valued member on the team. Veterans, go-to experts, and employees who focus on developing and helping others. They are often perceived as strong and independent. Two characteristics that stoke the bullies fire.
Conversely, the perpetrator is often insecure, envious, and threatened by a more accomplished team member. That very accomplishment is reason enough for the bully to wage a campaign of negative influence meant to bring their rival down and prop themselves up. They want the control that they perceive the other to hold.
The subterfuge often includes gossiping, spreading lies, and badmouthing colleagues. A friend to your face, they will quickly turn on you by sharing your confidences and spinning them to serve their best interests. They boycott participation in any assignment you have your hand in. Hoping to sink the project and your reputation along with it.
It’s envy, it’s ego, it’s a lack of self confidence.
And it’s a real business problem.
Teams suffer because they often silently are caught in the middle between the perpetrator and target. It creates tension and often stops projects from moving forward effectively.
Absenteeism upticks on all fronts. Engagement declines in this hostile environment.
Attrition rates rise. Often included in that number is the loss of the more valuable employee.
Litigation becomes a threat. If a complaint is filed, you are vulnerable as an employer.
As leaders, pay attention when you hear too many comments that seem like petty jealousies. Something seemingly as innocuous as negative lunchroom gossip about someone’s ‘ugly shoes’ might be a sign that there’s a rivalry brewing.
Be aware that it may be a sign of a bigger problem that will affect your business.
To work with Sandi Coryell to reduce middle management turnover, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.