Have you ever been queen bee'd?
If you are a businesswoman of my generation, the answer is very often yes, meaning that you have come across a more senior woman in the course of your career who didn't support you or, worse, undermined you. And it's a killer. Now, to be fair, her actions were understandable in the context of the business world of her time. Still not cool, but understandable. (More on this in a bit.)
But that world is changing, so now it's time to put a stop to that behaviour and break the vicious cycle.
We're going to get to how in a minute. But let's start with playing a little offence. Let's look at some new takes on some old work strategies – on feedback, on mentors, and on sponsors – and how approaching each of these in some perhaps unexpected ways can position us well against the queen bees and others out there holding us back.
Now, we're not naturally born knowing how to be leaders. Instead, leadership is a skill that is built as the result of thousands and thousands of micro-lessons over the course of a career. We most often think of those lessons as provided by a combination of explicit feedback (such as the year-end review) and unspoken feedback (like when the audience talks over your presentation). As we pay attention to this feedback – or better yet, actively seek it out – this helps us grow and improve. But the real leadership lessons don't just come from official performance reviews and embarrassing setbacks. They also happen constantly in office hallways, around proverbial watercoolers, and, increasingly, online.
Stand around a traditional workplace for a while and you can watch it in action: "Hey, Joe, good job on that presentation. Next time be sure to …" Or "Hey, Jim, you really stunk it up in there, huh? Next time try …"
The thing is, we women receive less of this casual but explicit micro-feedback at work than men do. A lot less. We get less of the "adjust this a tenth of a degree this way" or "try to change this slightly that way" and often more of the implicit feedback – like being left out of an important departmental decision, or not being tapped to participate in a critical project, or being passed over for a promotion or job. The problem is that this kind of feedback doesn't give us much actionable information to work from.
Why are we at this disadvantage?
It's because men remain in the majority of leadership roles, and research shows that they are nervous about women's responses to their explicit feedback. Yes, you guessed it: they are scared we're going to cry.
So what should we do?
Well, first of all, don't cry (or, if you must, take it to the ladies' room … fast). Feedback is a gift, even if it can sometimes be hard to hear.
Second, ask for feedback all the time. Then ask for more.
I learned the power of actively – and persistently – soliciting feedback early in my career as a new research analyst. Speaking at the morning meetings, each time I would get up to speak, the most senior analyst, who would always sit right in the front row, would sigh – very loudly – and simultaneously place his head in his hands and shake it from side to side. It was not only demoralizing but also humiliating, because if you were a member of the sales force looking at me talking at the morning meeting, you also had a direct view of him, sighing and shaking his head. (Be assured, I am not exaggerating this in the least.) Yes, it got under my skin; my voice would shake and my saliva would disappear.
It might have been funny if it weren't my career we were talking about.
After a few days of this, I gathered up my courage and went into this guy's office and asked him for some feedback on my performance. As you might imagine, he declined to give any; he said it wasn't his job. (I know, with someone like that, what did I really expect?)
But I felt like my career was on the line, so I didn't let it die there; I started asking for feedback from everyone else. How could I improve how I performed in the morning meeting? Did I make a cogent case for my stock recommendation? Did they see holes in my argument?
I found that the first time I asked someone these questions, I generally got a "You're doing great." The second time I asked I would get a slightly less emphatic "Really, you're fine." But here's the key: the third time, the person would generally start to recognize that I really wanted to improve and would finally say something I could use.
Eventually, one analyst came through with "Don't let your voice lilt up at the end of a sentence. It makes you sound like a little kid, and you lose credibility."
Oof. It stung a bit to hear that, but it was also incredibly helpful. Advice like this might sound insignificant (and no, it's not right and it's not fair that something like that could matter, but it did), but overnight I changed the way I spoke in meetings in such a way that I sounded more mature. I tried to convey as much of that all-important gravitas as I could muster …
Clearly not all feedback is created equal. So this raises the question of how to prioritize and parse through feedback. How should one decide what to take to heart and what to ignore?
My thoughts on this: listen to the critics and ignore the cynics. First, let's talk about the critics: yes, what they say may be tough to hear, but they're worth listening to.
These people may have been in your shoes before. They probably care about what you are trying to do. They likely operate from a place of trying to make you – and what you are building – better. Otherwise they would just tell you "you're fine," which is often a hell of a lot easier than telling you what you need to do to improve …
The cynics? You can recognize them because they've always got something negative to say, even, or sometimes especially, if you're killing it (that goes double for the queen bee, but more on that in a minute). They seem to revel in people failing. They seem to think your success might somehow detract from their own, and so they feel threatened. I've also noticed they tend to be the ones making their comments into a computer keyboard as opposed to face-to-face. If you get a long snarky e-mail or tweet time-stamped 1 a.m., odds are you're dealing with a cynic.
Listen to the critics; invite feedback from the critics; thank the critics. Ignore the cynics.
This brings us to the worst kind of cynic women can face … the queen bee. She is one kind of cynic that can really knock us off our game.
She's the woman who has been successful, but she seems allergic to doing anything to help other women reach the top. She's the one who says, "If I had to do it the hard way, so should you." She's the one who knocks the ladder out from behind her.
Yes, mean girls do exist after high school. But sometimes they can be hard to spot. Male bullies tend to yell, but as the Harvard Business Review writes, women tend to sabotage one another more subtly. It's called "relational aggression," and it will feel very familiar to those of us who were blindsided by the dazzling viciousness of mean girls when we were younger. There are countless scenarios for how bullying between women plays out, but in the workplace it often involves you being gossiped about or cut out of a project.
Despite the fact that the Workplace Bullying Institute labels "woman-on-woman" bullying with a cheerful acronym – WOW! – they acknowledge it as a major problem for women at work, noting that, even though there are more male than female bullies, women are more likely to target other women than to target men. Ironically, this is particularly true in macho workplaces where the few women there can be subtly encouraged to turn on one another …
I was queen bee'd once, big-time, and it was one of the nastiest surprises of my professional life. A senior woman told me she would advise me in navigating a tricky professional … and that I could count on her. Then I began to hear through the grapevine that she was telling other people that she didn't like it when I had done X and she didn't like my presentation on Y and she had vetoed my speaking at the Z conference (to which I had been invited) because she wanted to speak at it instead. I honestly felt like the sophomore in high school who had upset the head of the cheerleading squad. But because the vibes were coming to me through the grapevine, and because she continued to advise me and say she was my biggest supporter, I struggled with how to deal with it. Should I try to discuss this with her? Or take her at her word?
I didn't have that dilemma for long. Soon my supposed "biggest supporter" was one of the people on the other side of the table from me when I was reorganized out of the company.
Now why the heck do women do this to each other?
Often the queen bee acts this way because she feels threatened; she sees you as competition for one of the (woefully) few places for women at the top. And to be brutally honest, as I was making my way up the ladder on Wall Street, the women there all sort of knew – without ever saying the words – that there would really only ever be one or two seats for a woman at the senior management table. So if you were there, and you weren't ready to give yours up … well, you get the picture.
Other times she may just be replaying – consciously or not – how another queen bee treated her at some point in her career. The psychotherapist Phyllis Chesler wrote a whole book, Women's Inhumanity to Women, about how we sometimes reenact what's been done to us by a sexist world.
There may be another reason. Recent research shows that, in general, we tend to be compassionate to others when they go through difficult times. But if the difficult situation they are experiencing is something that we also have been through, we become less compassionate. We are more "Buck up" than "Let me help you." Many times I've heard, "Well, I had to fight my way up the corporate ladder the hard way; so should she."
There may also be another, perhaps more disturbing reason. A University of Colorado study showed that women and people of colour who have advocated for women and people of colour, respectively, have historically been penalized for it. (The slight good news is that, in contrast, Caucasian men receive a reputation bump from advocating for those same two groups.)
Whatever the reason for queen beeing, it needs to stop. The first step is recognizing that the (business) pie can grow. And thus there can be more seats at the table … Our options have exploded, and it's no longer winner-take-all, at all. And we need to recognize that women helping one another get ahead is good for each of us (and… good for the economy and society and our families).
Once this is understood, we can call out the queen bee when we see her. We can confront her face-to-face about her behaviour. It's important to call her out if it's happening to you. And it's even more important to call it out if we see it happening to others. Her negative energy is toxic for everyone in the workplace, and it shouldn't be tolerated.
Excerpted from Own It by Sallie Krawchek. Copyright © 2017 Sallie Krawchek. Published by Crown Business, a division of Penguin Random House Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.