Mean girl assistants: Dealing with high school office politics
We’ve all been there before, working with other assistants that seem to be more interested in ‘high school’ antics rather than actually working together and getting the job done, like a united admin team should. Driven by their own agenda, these assistants care little about their team or having a positive impact on those around them. From overhearing whispers in the break room with those who want to make anyone’s business their own, to witnessing gossip sessions at others’ desks, and the awkward quietness that falls when you approach the ‘cool group’ having coffee in the company cafeteria. Openly damaging people’s reputations through their careless backstabbing and banter, you wonder what it is you did to be on the receiving end of it. Is it jealousy perhaps? Are they threatened by you? Maybe they’re resentful that you’re more senior than they are. Whatever it is, it’s not cool, and not the way any effective admin team should operate. Now I got asked to write on this topic of ‘mean girls’, and not surprising given my previous articles written on EA etiquette and the obsession we have with status. It’s a common issue amongst assistants and admin teams, and in my opinion, is apparent due to the restriction of growth within the profession. I see if all too often, assistant’s lashing out and competing against each other in an attempt to be perceived as more senior and more important. Meanwhile, we all know the greater issue lay within our profession overall – the dated stereotypes we have to contend with and the flat line structure we all sit within- it eats away at so many of us, and many of us who aren’t willing to do anything about it. So why attack individuals who are trying to do something about it? Or those that are just trying to get their job done professionally and with pride? It’s stupid right? Why tear other people down in an attempt to build yourself up? For those of us who really do have this issue bubbling away deep inside, we realistically should be demonstrating to others how much we can achieve in our roles and how much responsibility we are capable of taking on, rather than showing others our immature side by getting caught up in the politics and bitchiness with others in the first place. It irritates me when I see this bad behaviour from assistants, and assistants who are clearly affected by the stereotypes that are associated with the role, letting it all get the better of them, rather than doing something about it or jumping on the band wagon of campaigns to raise the profile of the role. Instead they attempt to bring other assistant’s down around them who are striving to be better or who are trying to be trailblazers in changing our industry and profession. It doesn’t make sense to me, but none the less it continues to happen and seems to be, in my opinion, the root cause of the ‘mean girl antics’.
The great divide
On first glance, there seems to be two distinct types of assistants, and hence why there seems to be a political war that goes on. The first is the serious career EA, determined to exceed, stay out of the politics and treat their role and responsibilities in the same way that any other professional would. Wanting to just get their job done, they don’t come to work every day to insert themselves in everybody else’s business, they’re there wanting to be taken seriously as they grow through their career. Then there is the other type of assistant, dissatisfied with their position, their responsibilities and their rank in the company, they’re not prepared to do anything about it, so instead opt to bring down those that are succeeding in an attempt to make themselves feel better. The latter type of assistant herd together in a clan, hoping to gain strength in numbers. You will find that these nastier types of assistants will bring their schoolyard antics out at work but will fly under the radar going unnoticed from management, making other’s lives difficult on the sly. But be careful not to be sucked into their negativity and toxic pull. It’s essential to keep your nose clean and head above water, especially from a brand and reputation perspective. So how do you handle these mean girls/guys? And more importantly, how do you address these bad behaviours without dragging yourself into the mud?
Keep out of it and remain professional
Now it’s pretty obvious advice to say keep out of any bitching and politics at work, assistant-related or otherwise. But it’s important not to get dragged in or influenced by those around you who are keen to make negative comment on others. If the bitching and gossip is aimed or centred around you, it can be difficult not to retaliate or show emotion in how it affects you. But we all know the moment we show weakness, we show them they have won. But there is more to it than that. The minute we show anyone how the gossip is impacting us, it will ultimately affect your brand and your reputation and have others perceive you as someone who doesn’t have the strength or maturity to not let this stuff get to them. If you’re trying to create a profile for yourself that shows you as a strong character, someone that’s not affected by company politics, and instead is a leader and someone that rises above all, then showing strong emotional intelligence in these situations is essential. Nobody likes to be on the receiving end of bitchiness or isolation, and of course it will impact you internally if you really are being disrespected or resented, but there is a time and a place for your tears and a time and a place for venting about it and not with those that you work with. Speaking to anyone in the workplace (aside from your manager) will be just adding fuel to the fire and demonstrate that you really are no better than them, especially if you’re just bitching about them right back. Save your commentary for those outside of the workplace, where you know your conversations are secure.
Influence for the better
It’s difficult to not resent those that vindicate you, but when push comes to shove and you find yourself on the outside of the ‘click’, it’s sometimes necessary to join up forces with others in a similar position to you and lead from the outside. If you find yourself alone in your situation, and you’re the only one that is being attacked by these mean girls, then just join forces with yourself and continue to be the leader you are striving to be. People will always try and break you down, especially if they can see that you are striving to be more successful than they are. So rise above it and show them you’re bullet proof! Whilst emotional intelligence and a thick skin will go a long way in helping to deal with these types, even the most resilient can get brought down by their attacks. And whilst we can’t control how others behave, we can choose how we behave and as such try and set an example for the better. Keep your own behaviour at a level you can be proud of and that represents your own brand and reputation. Disengage from these political and toxic conversations and let the negative comments the bullies direct at you just brush over you.
Call out bad behaviour
If behaviours do start to get beyond tolerable and the idea of ignoring them is no longer an option, it’s time to stand up for yourself, or others, and challenge those that are behaving disrespectfully. Set a standard of what is acceptable and what isn’t, and be prepared to call people out on it when that line is crossed. You don’t have to be confrontational or rude, but a quiet remark or a tap on the shoulder for a private conversation is well within your rights. And if you don’t have the courage to raise concerns with the way you are treated then seek the support and advice you need from the appropriate people within or outside of your organisation. But if you really are finding yourself being vindicated in an unprofessional way, or worse still you find yourself on the receiving end of what you consider to be ‘bullying’ then it’s probably time to have a conversation with HR. But really think before you do this, as essentially this will make matters worse and do nothing for saving the relationships. Avoid accusations and criticism, focus rather on the behaviour and the consequences for those around you. If it looks like you’ve gone and ‘dobbed’ on them (and sorry to use such a high school word), you’ll find yourself in a vicious cycle that will be hard to break. But if you do want to break this cycle you find yourself in, the best thing you can do is just step out of it and away from it. But your head down and your bum up and ignore it, if you can.
No body likes to have enemies or create enemies in the workplace, especially with those that are in your team or that you have to work with closely. But we’ve all worked with these bullying types, or I know I have at least, and it can unpleasant to say the very least. You never want to make toxic situations worse or more toxic than they need to be, so the first approach should always be to ignore what’s going on in the hope that by giving them no attention they’ll find someone else to pick on! Only escalate or address bad behaviours when they really do get out of hand. In any case you want to make the work place pleasant, not only for yourself, but for everyone around you, so set your standards high and stick to them. Don’t ever let others penetrate the ideals you set. When you have to spend 40+ hours in a place of work, you want it to be your utopia, so don’t let anyone upset or disturb that vision you create, ever.