I have known more than a few women lawyers who did not realize they were professional bullies. They were the grownup, professional version of a mean girl and mean girls very often become mean women.
Oftentimes their bullying behaviors and tactics started young. Perhaps they were told their ‘bossiness’ (i.e. bullying) was an early manifestation of what would become their ‘leadership skills.’
Here’s the thing, bossiness and bullying will never be characteristics of effective leadership.
If you are experiencing feelings of drain and burnout, ask yourself this: Is it burnout or am I being bullied at work? Are you dealing with a bossy “leader” who is mentally and emotionally depleting you? Are their unrelenting and unreasonable demands actually be a form of professional bullying?
Actually, it could be both. I have literally seen lawyers break down and cry as they were berated publicly for a missed deadline or a motion denied. The verbal assaults they received were as painful and devastating as any physical assault would have been. They were being bullied but the results mimicked signs of burnout, i.e. their attention to detail and work quality suffered.
I stood up for the lawyers I witnessed being bullied then, and I speak up against bullying now.
For example, I recently witnessed a bullying attack in action. While driving through a shopping center in an upscale community, I saw three teenage girls walking together. The girls appeared to be neighborhood kids out for a walk on a pleasant evening.
I was driving behind them and could not see their faces. One girl had Auburn hair (I’ll call her “Aubry”) and the other two girls had beautiful curly, Red hair (I’ll call them “Sandy” & “Sally.”) I believe Aubry and Sandy are about 16 years old.
Aubry and Sandy were having a conversation when all of sudden, Aubry slapped Sandy in the back of the neck so hard it made my stomach flip. Sandy immediately grabbed her neck and was clearly in shock and in pain. Sandy then said something to Aubry who immediately slapped Sandy in the back of the neck . . . AGAIN!
It was almost as if I was witnessing this incident in slow motion. It felt surreal. I could not believe my eyes. I was angry and fuming but at the same time overwhelmingly sad.
I wondered what was going through Sandy’s mind and heart at that moment. Was she feeling humiliated and betrayed? Was she feeling lost and scared? Was she wondering what she should do or how she could get away from this mean girl? Was she wondering what the other girl with them was thinking about her being attacked in such a hostile and aggressive manner?
I wanted to find out what in the world would elicit such an abusive attack but I had a car full of people who may be uncomfortable with me saying anything to these girls. And to make matters worse, at this point, I would have to make a u-turn in a space not really conducive to doing so.
I was so upset, I pulled over to gather my thoughts. The girls are now walking towards my car. In fact, they were going to walk right past us. I couldn’t help it. I had to speak up.
I rolled my window down and first asked if they were sisters. I thought it might have been a sibling argument that got out of hand. Had they been sisters, my plan was to encourage them to love and hug each other every day instead of assaulting each other.
But alas, Sally said “yes.” Aubry and Sandy said, “no, we’re friends.”
I told them I was driving behind them earlier and witnessed Aubry assaulting Sandy in the back of the neck, not once but twice. The girls were stunned and trying to process what I was telling them.
I then told Sandy: “Please listen to me very carefully. SHE (Aubry) is not your friend. A true friend would never, ever do what she just did to you. She slapped you very hard in the back of your neck twice. She did so intentionally and with such force and power, she could have severely injured you. She is not your friend. Do you understand what I am telling you?” I then told Sandy “to Pick Better Friends.“
Do you want to know what Sandy did next? With tears in her eyes, she said “Yes. Yes, I do understand.” Sandy was shaking her head up and down the entire time. I could tell she felt what I was telling her.
Aubry is a mean girl and she will likely grow up to become a mean woman. I believe Mean Girls become Mean Women because:
- Few people dare to call them out on their bad, ruthless and vicious behavior.
- Reality TV celebrates Mean Women who harm each other, emotionally, mentally, verbally and physically. This horrific behavior is modeled for Mean Girls as being normal and something friends do.
- The behavior is tolerated, ignored and accepted by those putting up with them, sometimes for decades.
Why am I sharing this story with you, a woman lawyer, who will likely never endure physically what Sandy did? I am sharing this because you may be the victim of bullying right now . . . or you might be a bully. Think about the people you lead or manage. How do you treat them? What do you think about them? How do you speak to them?
There are a few things you can do to avoid being a professional bully, especially if you hold a position of authority:
- Do not strip anyone of their dignity, ever. Seek to preserve the dignity of others no matter the circumstance. It costs nothing but can mean everything to those working with and for you.
- Do not wield harsh, hateful or cutting words as your weapon of choice.
- Do not humiliate, embarrass or instill fear in others by the way you review, edit and correct your subordinates’ work product or write a performance review.
- Do not use people for information that makes you look wiser, better and smarter and then refuse to pay them for their time or services or acknowledge their talents and abilities.
- Do not cement others into one experience where they made a mistake or had a failure.
I hope my advice to Sandy caused Aubry to realize that others might experience her actions and assess her character unbeknownst to her.
Regarding my experience with these teenagers, I realize I did not have all of the facts. But I know one thing for sure, I know what true friendship looks, feels and sounds like. And I know there was no real, true friendship there.
Finally, if your feelings of burnout are as a result of you being bullied, you must take action and do something about this NOW. Please seek appropriate professional help right away. Your emotional, mental and physical well being will deteriorate the longer you tolerate being bullied. You deserve better!
Would you like to know 3 Huge Mistakes Women Lawyers Make and How You Can Avoid Them? Download your free copy of my ebook here.