Whenever women group up together, a social pecking order is swiftly established. Once the order is established, it is continuously verified through verbal communications. Women use words differently than men do. For women, what you say, how often you verbally engage, who you do and don’t speak to, and the tone you use speak volumes about where you think you ought to be in the pecking order, how willing you are to submit to the current alpha, and how you feel towards each of the members in the group. A conversation that starts with “So, how was everyone’s weekend?” might sound like regular chitchat to a passing man, but to the women involved in the conversation, a lot more is happening than an update on social activities. While Rebecca explains about her son’s fishing trip, she is also communicating to the other hens that she thinks Jane is an annoying twerp. When Holly responds to Rebecca’s news about her son’s trip, Holly signals back that she agrees with Rebecca’s assessment of Jane. Neither woman has even mentioned Jane’s name, but as Jane sits there watching, she and every other woman in the group understands what’s being said about her.
Women often speak in layered codes, with the literal meaning of their words not lining up with what they are really communicating. This is one of the reasons men often view women as mysterious and difficult to please. Men tend to take women’s words at face value, totally missing the subtle inflections that would guide another woman to the right interpretation. When spoken by a woman, the phrase “I’m fine” can easily mean “I’m feeling rotten. Please press me for details about what’s bothering me.” For women, tone is a vital part of communication, and there are a wide range of tones that can be used. If you’re my good friend, I will be able to use a slight tone shift to cue you that my “I’m fine” really means “I’m feeling lousy and want to talk about it.” If we’re not good friends, I will have to use a more dramatic tone shift to try and get you to pick up on the fact that I’m speaking in code. So shifts in tone not only convey coded meanings, they also test and verify the intimacy of the relationship. Of course I could just stop with codes all together and tell you straight out that I feel rotten. Many men dearly wish their ladies would be more straightforward with them instead of getting insulted when the men miss their subtle clues. But the point is that women have many ways of communicating their value and interest in each other, and they constantly verify these things when they are socializing.
Now suppose you are a woman and you get a new job in which you are going to be working with an all female staff. As the newbie, you are intruding on a pecking order that has already been established. In every pecking order, there is an alpha hen who feels she is superior to everyone else. Other hens might not agree with the alpha’s lofty view of herself, but as long as they act like they agree, there will be relative peace in the group…unless the alpha hen is a jerk.
Unfortunately, a lot of alphas behave like tyrannical queens, going out of their way to make certain hens miserable just because it makes them feel powerful. In these abusive dynamics, you will pick up on a lot of tension between the hens. No one likes a mean leader, and conniving queens are mean. They are also paranoid about being dethroned, which is why they are likely to blast you with hostility right off while they test your willingness to endure pecking. If you respond with anger and challenge an insecure queen in front of her other hens, she will very likely make it her mission to permanently ostracize you. Here’s where ugly rumors start getting circulated about you and lies get told to supervisors that make you look like a bad employee. If even your supervisors are afraid of the queen hen (which is often the case), they will probably not be willing to discipline the queen even when she does obnoxious things. In these situations, your best bet is to try to win the queen over without challenging her rank. And here is where strategy is needed.
It’s infuriating to not only have lies made up about you, but also accepted as true by the people with power. It’s very painful to have hens who you thought were your friends suddenly betray you by repeating things you shared in confidence and giving the queen more ammo to use against you. Sometimes it’s just not worth sticking around because the situation is so out of control and all of the top managers are enabling the abusive queen. If you do want to stick it out, there are some strategies that you can employ which might help. But they will require a lot of grace and self-control on your part, so be honest with yourself about whether or not you want to bother.
The first step is to set your own fury aside for a moment and appreciate what is going on inside the group. All of the domination, bullying, and groveling you see is being fueled by fear. The alphas in these situations are typically terrified of not being on top, because they instinctively know that they couldn’t endure being pecked. The hens who sit there taking endless abuse are often afraid they’ll be treated even worse if they protest. The goal you want to go for is to be a solo hen who works with the group without joining it.
That’s a tricky dynamic to pull off, but the only other option that won’t lead to war is to grovel to the queen hen, and you really shouldn’t do that. Groveling isn’t good for anyone–not the abuser or the victim. Plus, groveling to the queen will cause her to lose respect for you (even though she’ll feel relieved that you’re not a threat), and that isn’t going to help you reach your end goal, which is to have the queen see you as a neutral partner.
Hens who are used to being pecked will be nervously waiting to see if you’re going to start pecking them as well when you arrive on the scene. Some of them might start trying to peck you right away, just to bump themselves up a rank in the group. To establish yourself as a safe, neutral party, you should make a point to be nice to every member of the group. Be polite. Be classy. Give compliments that you actually mean. But don’t fawn over them, because that will be mistaken as groveling. Remember that the goal here is to not join the group, because then you will be assigned a rank. You don’t want a rank, because the only rank offered to you will be one under the queen hen’s feet. You want the queen to see you as a neutral outsider who she can get along with without feeling like her kingdom is being threatened.
A good practice is to look for something nice you can say to each hen every day. Look for a well done hairstyle, a stylish outfit, a well-chosen necklace. But also try to treat them all as equals by spreading the compliments around and not favoring. If some hens start warming up to you, be very attentive to what they say to you and show interest in them personally. But while you’re busy signalling the lower hens that you’re not a pecker, be sure you are also throwing regular crumbs of attention and affirmation to the queen as well. She will be closely monitoring your interactions with her hens, looking for signs that you might be trying to woo some of them away from her to set up your own kingdom. By also being nice to the queen, you confuse her and make her wonder what your real game is.
Softening the Queen
Don’t expect the queen to become your buddy, because that’s not realistic. People who abuse others are often too fearful to share power in a healthy way. Instead, they feel they must hoard power to keep themselves safe. So the queen will hoard, and in the early days of your arrival, she’ll very likely try to sabotage you by keeping you from doing your job well and hoarding resources that you need. These situations need to be handled carefully. When complaints must be made to management because vital resources are being withheld, it’s best to state those complaints in a calm tone of voice while leaving out specific names. “I didn’t lock the door last night because I haven’t been given access to the keys.” “I didn’t file the papers like you asked because I was told not to touch them.” Leave it to your boss to ask you who was blocking you from doing your job. In many cases, bosses won’t ask because they already know who the problem is. But by not naming names and by stating your situation calmly, you come across as mature and reasonable. If you start getting emotional and listing off all of the ways the hens have been hassling you, you come across as petty and insecure. Is this fair? No, because the fact is you are being hassled and it isn’t right. But social dynamics always win the day in these affairs, and how you behave will greatly affect how willing someone is to listen to you and care about your situation.
At first, the queen is going to be a jerk to you because that’s what she does. She’ll be paranoid about you challenging her, especially if you exude confidence. When you don’t immediately grovel, she’ll decide that you are a threat and likely step up her game to try to get you to break and accept a position underneath her. But this is exactly what you don’t want to do. There is a difference between responding to a bully graciously and accepting the role of Doormat #6. It is psychologically unhealthy for you to accept a doormat position, but it will take a lot of effort to be gracious in the face of conniving tricks.
So how do you soften a queen who is hassling you? You wait until she’s between stunts and then pay her a compliment. It’s vital that the compliment be sincere. Also, keep it reasonable, not over the top. Appearance is usually a good topic to go for because these kinds of queens typically have very poor self-esteem lurking beneath their haughty facades. With hostile queens, it’s best to phrase the compliment as a statement, not a question, because questions can be turned into attacks. For example:
TRY: “I really like your hair. You’re quite good at updos.”
AVOID: “I love your hair. Can you give me tips?”
That second effort invites the hen to help you–something she’s not going to be willing to do while she is still feeling threatened by you. If you try to elicit this kind of personal help early on, she’ll probably jump on it as a chance to insult you, which will ruin the impact you were going for.
YOU: “I love your hair. Can you give me tips?”
QUEEN: “Why would I give you tips? I’m not your mother.”
Natural abilities are another good area to compliment. “You have such nice handwriting. Your desk is very organized.” Timing is important here. It’s most effective if you drop the compliment on the queen when she isn’t looking for it and isn’t engaging with you. Toss it out naturally as you go about your tasks. “Hey, Dee, I love those shoes! Nice pick!” Insecure queens will immediately assume you’ve got some dark agenda behind your compliments, so if you toss out the compliment in a random moment and then go on, it will be clear that you aren’t trying to butter them up for something or build up to a specific request. You were just saying something nice. Just because. And this will confuse the queen.
Guarding Personal Information
Now while you’re going around being nice to the lower hens and making a point to keep catching the queen off guard with sincere compliments that you don’t expect to be reciprocated, you also need to guard your personal information. Don’t share sensitive information with members of an abusive pecking order. Doing this sort of thing only sets you up to get hurt. In these situations, there are usually some lower hens who have fully embraced the doormat role, while others are anxiously trying to move up in the ranks. Those who want to move up will leap on your sensitive information as a chance to win the queen’s favor. They will then feed her the gossip, likely twisting it to be extra tantalizing to her, and the queen will then likely find a way to use that information against you. So don’t be foolish. Only share information that you wouldn’t mind the whole world knowing, because these are not safe people.
By now some of you are probably thinking, “But if I don’t share about myself, I won’t make any friends.” Exactly. You won’t. And, yes, it is lonely. But in abusive pecking orders, you aren’t going to find good candidates for friendship.
Now I understand that in the modern world, many people rely on their coworkers to also satisfy their need for friends. I’ve seen women share highly sensitive information to extremely unsafe audiences over and over just because they were desperate to have someone listen to them. This is where you have to make a personal choice about how much abuse you want to sign up for in life. You also need to stop misusing the term friend. A real friend is not someone you barely know, so despite what Facebook models, strangers are not your friends. A real friend is not someone who talks trash about you when you’re not around, so once you discover that one of your coworkers has done that, stop mentally labeling that person as a friend. They’re not a friend, they are an unsafe person. If you suspect that you’re a disaster at managing your relationships well, I recommend that you read my book What’s Wrong With My Relationships? I explain the different types of human relationships you can engage in and how you should manage each one. I also explain how to safely share sensitive information with others.
In the strategy I’m explaining here, you are intentionally trying to not join the group. If you don’t join the group, you won’t gain friends. But when the group is abusive, you won’t gain friends even if you do join, you’ll just get pecked. I realize how depressing this can sound, but pretending things are other than they are will only cost you pain. In real life, coworkers aren’t usually good candidates for friends. Instead, they are usually a mix of unsafe and casual relationship partners. It’s vital to realize that casual relationships are based on convenience, not trust. This is why your coworkers feel free to spread rumors about you–because casual relationships do not offer the loyalty required to keep secrets secret. If you tell one person, you’ve told the whole office. It doesn’t matter that Beth swears not to tell anyone when you bare your soul at the water cooler. Beth is not your friend and she’s not in a trust based relationship with you, so she has no qualms about breaking her promise not to tell because she didn’t mean the promise in the first place.
There are unspoken rules of engagement for each type of human relationship. If you ignore the rules or never learn them, you will only end up hurt because other people will play by the rules, and the rules of casual relationships mean people can blab their hearts out about you. They can gossip with abandon. Is it classy? No, it’s sleazy, but it’s allowed, so people do it.
We all know that there are big social rewards for being the one with the juicy gossip. For at least a few precious seconds, you are the center of attention and even the hens that outrank you want to know what you have to say. Expecting people to be strong enough to pass by such opportunities is not realistic. The very fact that hens are enduring a bunch of mean pecking tells you that they’ve got problems and are likely feeling very starved for attention. So when you give them some juicy tidbit about yourself, of course they’re going to use your information to get what they need, which is a sense that the other hens think they are worth something. To do well in these situations, you have to respect the needs of the hens around you. You can’t just focus on how badly you’re being treated. Human behavior is driven by personal need, so the better you assess the needs of others, the better you’ll do at setting realistic expectations for how they will behave.
The Positive Result
The strategy I’ve laid out here comes down to two main principles: guard your personal information, and soften the queen with random, sincere compliments. When this works, the queen eventually stops feeling threatened by you. She might even signal you that she is warming up to you by paying you a compliment or sharing something about herself or asking you for a minor favor. Reward any effort the queen makes to be nice to you, but remember that she is still an unsafe person who should not be trusted.
When this strategy works, the end result is that you and the queen end up working well alongside each other. The queen continues to peck on her underlings, but she no longer pecks on you because she understands that you’re not one of her flock. Instead, she views you as a non-threatening bystander who can actually be helpful at times when everyone focuses on what brought you together in the first place, which is the job.
For more about female communication, see Male-Female Communication: Male Compartmentalization & The Female Need for Words.
For more about tyrannical group leaders, see Why You Should Say No To Hazing.
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