Monday, April 17, 2006

Mean Girls: We don't like 'em. So why do we follow them?

Is there a place for cruelty in your organization? I'd like to think there isn't, however I think I may be wrong.

Sitting in a Purdue University classroom listening to a distinguished graduating senior talk about relational aggression -- a type of interpersonal behavior that can be insidious and very sophisticated and has been studied mostly in girls -- I found myself surprised.

Aimee discussed the results of her experiment. Her subjects reported that, although they liked the women they identified as "nice," they still picked the aggressive, unlikable women to work on projects with when given the choice.

Thinking ahead to the kinds of woman-to-woman situations I dealt with in my old HR days, I found that most could be said to have been "relational aggresion:" hurtful rumors; withdrawal of attention, support and help; exclusion. The aggressor, in each situation, was someone who people didn't much like or trust, but they followed her fairly relentlessly.

Organizational power, in relational aggression, may not directly parse to the job descriptions of the people involved. I've been called in when a group secretaries decides a woman manager must go or when the nurses on a shift have squared off against a woman doc. The nurses and the secretaries don't have title power, but are, arguably, some of the most powerful muscle-flexors in an organization's social fabric.

Why? Are we geared to consort with the aggressive? Is there a difference between what we say we admire and what we follow? I wondered: are our efforts to blunt the aggressive tendencies of our employees (like sales reps, for example) hurting their effectiveness?

While we don't like the mean, we still pick them when we want to win.

Read the Fast Company magazine article about aggressive execs.