"Oh, I've Done That"-Talking to the Authors of "Mean Girls at Work"
As business partners and authors who have worked together for over twenty years, psychotherapist Katherine Crowley and executive coach Kathi Elster know a thing or two about nurturing healthy workplace relationships. Following up the success of their 2007 book Working With You is Killing Me, the author duo takes a more gender-specific approach to dealing with the tribulations of today’s workplace.
Amazon.com spoke with Crowley and Elster about their latest book Mean Girls at Work.
You have written several books now as an author team; it seems like it would be challenging. What’s your strategy?
Kathi: I think the beauty is that Katherine is a psychotherapist, and I’m an executive coach. So we really don’t confuse the two messages. I think we’re very clear on our contributions. So when we were tackling Mean Girls, Katherine would say “this is psychologically what’s going on with this woman,” and I would say “Ok, so in the workplace—I think she’s gotta call a meeting, or I think she better write an email.”
Katherine: In terms of [how we actually get the words on the page], we basically have conversations with each other. I’m usually at the keyboard typing out what we’re saying, and then we shape it, we print it out, I give it to Kathi, she gives it back to me, we shape it some more, and on it goes. We’ve really found a way to work together.
Kathi: We had a client whose known us for years. She read the book and said “Oh, Kathi said that! Oh, Katherine said that!” Once you get to know us, and know the voice, you know who said what.
You mention at the beginning of Mean Girls at Work that you’ve interviewed hundreds of different women in different industries. Do certain industries have “meaner” women than others?
Katherine: That’s a great question. I think the dynamics of women working with women have been stronger in certain industries for many years. For example in hospitals, where nurses are famous—and infamous—for treating each other rather harshly. That’s always been a female-dominated profession. And the fashion industry, as we all know, has an amazing reputation on the one hand for women creating incredibly beautiful things, but on the other hand competing with each other in very covert and indirectly aggressive ways.
Kathi: The fields that were predominantly women had the worst problems. But now that women have infiltrated every industry, it’s pretty standard now. I don’t think it’s industry-specific at all anymore. But nursing is a tough one. They have a saying in nursing: “We eat our young.” We’ve had the privilege of working with nurses for years. Their profession is so admirable, but they have this problem.
Your book discusses different “types” of mean girls. What is the most pervasive type?
Kathi: The bulk of mean girls are passively mean. Women are conflicted. Women want to be liked at work and they want to make friends. The conflict is that they also want to succeed. How can you be liked—be friends with everybody—and compete with them? That’s the dilemma.
Katherine: We also write about three categories of women who don’t intend to be mean, but their colleagues may interpret their behavior as mean. Those three types are also very common…she has the best intentions but she may be very bossy or very righteous or very controlling or tell you she knows the answer to everything. That woman doesn’t even know she’s being mean, but she could ruffle a lot of feathers.
Getting good feedback about how you’re perceived at work isn’t always easy. How will your reader know is she is actually the “mean girl?”
Kathi: We wrote this book in a way where we are asking [the reader] all the time: “Have you ever rolled your eyes? Have you ever talked about another girl?” We pose the question many times. We all have the ability to be perceived as mean. We ask the reader, “See where you can find yourself in this book.” And writing this book, I found myself saying more times than I like to admit, “Oh, I’ve done that!”
I am a guy, and I think guys could use a book like this. Could a hypothetical “Mean Men at Work” be written from a female perspective? Or do you think that’s a book only a man should write?
Katherine: My bias is that it should be written by a man. And maybe edited by a woman (laughs). First of all, men know better how they’re mean to each other. But I think women are really good at picking up on the more subtle behaviors and signals that both men and women give each other.
Kathi: In our other books, we didn’t get too gender specific. We talked about bad behavior in the workplace. Bad bosses, bad coworkers, saboteurs. This is the first gender-specific book we’ve written and we thought long and hard about it.
What has the feedback for Mean Girls at Work been like compared to your previous books, Working for You Isn’t Working for Me and Working with You Is Killing Me?
Kathi: When “Working with You Is Killing Me” came out in 2006 it was quite sensational. Nobody had talked like that. There were books about emotional intelligence, but nobody was nailing it the way we were. In interviews, people would ask us, “What’s the worst thing people do?” It was very sensational. I’m finding with this book, we’re getting the same volume of interest but it’s being handled more thoughtfully. No one is sensationalizing it. I like that much better. We’re having a much more interesting dialogue about work, and taking women seriously at work.
Katherine: I’d like to add another twist to it. This book for some reason has been received negatively by a certain segment of the female population. 85% of the women read it and love it, but there a segment that really finds it offensive, that doesn’t like the term “mean girls”... the notion of giving women tips for being more professional, rather than responding personally, is offensive to them.
Kathi: And we understand [the criticism]. We thought long about doing this book because woman have gone so far. Do we now really want to talk about the dark side?
Katherine: ...or feed in to stereotypes of catfights? With “Working with You Is Killing Me” they may have sensationalized it, but no one said, “This offends me to the core.”
Kathi: ...and we can’t generalize about this group of women, except to say that they are very pro-women. We can’t say they are mean girls. They don’t think it is appropriate to talk about what we might do wrong.
What are some books that have shaped you personally and professionally?
Kathi: I love business books since I’m the executive coach. I really appreciated “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson, phenomenal writer. There were so many business lessons in that book. I also read spiritual books: “The New Earth” by Eckart Tolle, anything the Dalai Lama writes.
Katherine: My most recent favorite book was “Crash of the Titans” by Greg Farrell. That was fascinating because it was all about greed, and spin and deception, and high risk, high gain.
What’s on the bedside table right now?
Katherine: I’m currently reading “Beloved.” I’m late on that one! In my free time I read therapy books, like The Dance of Anger, Addictive Thinking, Money Drunk. I actually really like Malcolm Gladwell. Anything he writes is usually on my bedside table. And I don’t usually read novels, but I’m also reading “Where'd You Go, Bernadette?”What is next for the both of you?
Kathi: we’re actually trying to get a radio show. That isn’t here yet. We are also developing a podcast series. We do a lot of coaching in companies and partnership mediations. It’s an ongoing business.
What about plans for another book?
Kathi: You know, we’re taking a break. We like to enjoy our books.
Katherine: We also like to make sure that the topic is pertinent. This topic of women competing with women—that found us. We had a speaking gig at a science and technology conference and we were asked to talk about “women haters,” which we had never heard of. Their request caused us to research, write, and give a workshop. That led to the book. It hit a nerve.
So the next topic may find you.
Katherine: Right. We have to find that nerve.