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How to deal with other strong women at work

Being highly skilled at assertively handling challenging conversations is the key to taming the alpha female, narcissist from hell

Dealing with other women leaders was something I really struggled with a lot in my corporate days. Working in a HR/L&D team meant that my peers were predominantly women – and I’d always found it far easier and more enjoyable to work in a male team if I’m honest.

It’s a bit of a sad fact of society that women can be right b*tches. The cattiness that can exist can be toxic and really shocking. What I found most disturbing was just how ‘back stabby’ it could be. You never knew who you could really trust. You had to have eyes in the back of your head and play a very draining game to keep your backside covered, otherwise you’d find yourself being chucked under the bus before you knew it. You had to be on your toes and bring your A game constantly – and I hated it.

Back then I had no idea how to navigate this terrain. Luckily, I was quite young so had bucket loads of energy & bouncebackability, not to mention low self awareness which was actually a blessing in disguise – if I had the self awareness I had now, I think it would crush me quite quickly. 

My career took off while I was quite young – I did really well through my 20’s – but I had no idea just how stunning I was and apparently, it was my looks that were getting me places, much to the envy of other women around me. It was only a few years ago when I bumped into an old colleague of mine who, after a couple of drinks, was more than happy to tell me that I was just seen as ‘the bit of skirt’ in the leadership team and that EVERYONE knew it except me. They were all sniping behind my back. I’m glad I was oblivious as that could have really damaged me. I know different. I was bloody good at what I did and I continued on my career path into my early 30’s. After a really awful experience with another woman in work, actually one of my direct reports who bullied me, I made it my mission to become highly skilled at handling difficult conversations, specifically with other women. I was fine with men – I could stand my ground calmly and confidently, no bother, but with women I was constantly having to try to read between the lines and to uncover the hidden agenda which meant I wasn’t focused on the skill of the conversation. So, after many years of development in this field, I can not only handle those conversations with other strong women, I can also help others to handle them too.

Let’s just get clear on what we mean by dealing with other strong women, because there’s a few different types of ‘strong women’ and they require a different approach.

Firstly, there’s the alpha female narcissist from hell – the one who tries to be like the men (not that all the men actually behave like this ironically), believing that she must be aggressive to lead in the right way. She doesn’t listen, dictates to others what and how they should do things, demands results at any cost, has no empathy whatsoever and will publicly shame and chastise you if you do not hit her ever changing standards.

Then there’s the backstabbing b*tch – the one who has the hidden agenda to take you down, must come out on top and prove that she is better than you. But she’ll always do this in a passive aggressive way. Often sarcastic and false, they’ll play the game publicly, but behind closed doors they’ll tear you to shreds. The goalposts move constantly so you never know where you stand and you haven’t got a cat in hell’s chance of getting anything right!

Lastly, there’s the genuinely, strong and assertive woman. She works collaboratively not competitively. She has high self awareness, takes accountability for herself, her actions & behaviour and her results. She is confident enough to be her true self and knows her own unique talents. She values diversity, surrounding herself with an equally talented team who mitigate her gaps and weaknesses. Yes, she has high standards – but she communicates them clearly and authentically. She is clear on the what, but allows the experts she surrounds herself with to work out the how, because she knows that they know more than her and that’s ok. She holds other people to account, and is able to do so in a way that people respect because she’s curious and she listens, has empathy and demonstrates a human side that engages others and compels them to want to work harder for her.

Has anyone worked for that last woman? I bet there’s not many. I know they exist because I’ve met them, but they’re like rocking horse sh*t to find! 

So – how do we deal with them? Well, let’s work backwards. The genuinely strong and assertive women is easy. Be yourself. She is your role model so emulate her behaviours. Have high self awareness. Be accountable. Be considerate – listen. And have courage – talk straight.

With the back stabbing b*tch I’d recommend what I call a ‘whites of the eyes’ conversation. This takes a fair degree of courage and it’s important you feel skilled in being able to articulate yourself well and manage your emotions through this conversation. I would strongly suggest you prepare for this conversation too, this is not a time for winging it or flying by the seat of your pants. You are going to remain highly assertive in this conversation. That means we go in with consideration first – it needs a curious mindset. You have to check in with yourself before you go in that you can have this conversation to genuinely help the other woman to get better, be a better leader. If you’re going in with a chip on your shoulder, to get something off your chest or get back at her – don’t. Walk away until you can come back and do this right. Once in, you want to seek to understand before being understood (4th habit, Stephen Covey; 7 habits of highly effective people). Try and find out why she behaves the way she does. Start with a bit of observational, behavioural feedback and the impact it has on you and then ask what’s going on for her around that. If you can crack through the hard exterior, you’ll find there are issues for this woman, she’s likely isolated, lonely, and in fear of something. She could do with an ally and someone to talk to, a friend even. There’s a real opportunity to turn this one around.

Lastly, with the alpha female narcissist from hell it’s time for simple feedback and a bit of peer to peer or upward coaching. Now, sounds easy right? But you’ve got to tread the line carefully here as you’re at risk of sounding patronising or overstepping the line which she will not take kindly to. Again, you’ve got to be skilled to handle this conversation. I highly recommend asking permission first to offer up some insight into what you’re noticing (notice how I don’t use the word feedback there – that’s like throwing petrol on the flames!). Stroke her ego a little bit if you have to. Load her up with the positive praise about the great stuff you see in her (don’t make it up though, she’ll see right through you). Watch out for the ‘but’ though! It’s a sure fire way to put a big fat line through all you just said, don’t waste that hard graft. Offer an ‘and’ instead, something extra that you think she could try that would make a big difference to you and what she could get out of you. Talk in tangibles where possible. Show her that you’re on the same side and you want the same thing.

At the end of the day, what’s important to recognise is that all of these women come from a place a good intent. They’re fighting their own battle to achieve equality in the board room or at the leadership table. If you can look past all the bravado, they’re passionate, hungry, ambitious women and there’s most certainly nothing wrong with that. The thing is, most of the examples they have to show them what it means to lead at this level are of men and this is where it goes wonky. Men and women are different – and that’s a great thing! We bring different things to the party and the diversity of that is to be welcomed with open arms. We need leadership teams that have a blend of both to deliver the highest performance and that’s yet to be widely accepted.

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