Navigating Catty Behavior in the Workplace: What to Expect and How to Avoid the Mean Girls

There are very few things that occur in the workplace that destroy an individual’s sense of belonging and general harmony more than catty behavior.  In general terms, Catty behavior may be defined  as mean-spirited nastiness intended to hurt or harm another individual’s professional or emotional well-being. While I recognize that men may very well be involved in similar behaviors, it has been my own personal experience to believe that women are more versed and better equipped to evoke these behaviors on a regular basis.

As if my intuition weren’t enough, according to a nationwide poll by the Employment Law Alliance, 45 percent of American workers say they have experienced workplace abuse. Under closer review, 40 percent of the tormentors that are women tend to prey on other women 70 percent of the time. I think this speaks to the overwhelming number of women in the workplace that have experienced or even taken part in catty behavior.

What are the reasons for many women to engage in catty behaviors? I believe there are many variables that play a part and sometimes it can be a combination of several factors, both psychological and sociological. I have listed a few characteristics that may describe why women become catty.

1. Insecurity  Insecurity is usually ignited more so when a person lacks self- confidence and their feelings of self-worth have been threatened.

2. Jealousy Women are raised to pay attention to other women in a judgmental way. Women are more prone to be judgmental of each other.

3. Extreme Competition – I believe women have a natural instinct to be competitive, but are for the most part uncomfortable with the feeling of wanting something and their desire to compete to get it. At an early age women are taught that competitive behaviors are unattractive and less desired, so women are never taught to deal with these feelings in an open manner.

4. Envy – The desire to have what others have in terms of perceived success. Some women will stop at nothing in order to get what others have, even if it means taking it from them.

Many women engage in indirect aggression. Rather than be forthcoming, they choose a cowardly power play tactic. Catty women are afraid to confront people in a respectful, open and direct manner. Instead, they wage an attack in a passive manner that can directly diminish someone’s emotional well-being, causing hurt and emotional pain. They are inclined to build themselves up and feel more powerful by knocking someone else down; thus, giving them justification for their bad behaviors.

In order for us to better understand what catty behavior looks like, it may be best to understand the players involved or what they may look like in your workplace. Keep in mind some women may fit into a variety/combination of these characteristics.

Here are a few examples to consider:

1. The Leader of the Pack – (aka, The Queen Bee) Alpha female; weakens ties between others for the sake of strengthening her own power base; she reigns over her catty followers. Quite simply, it makes her feel more powerful and charged to control other’s emotions.

2. The Sidekick – Second in command and takes directive from the Leader of the Pack. Her behaviors are similar to the Leader of the Pack but she has no true power on her own.

3. The Conniving Backstabber – She is spiteful and cunning in her approach. She trash-talks, betrays and manipulates with ease.

4. The Gossip – She delights in spreading false rumors and malicious lies about others.

5. The Black Widow Spider – She smiles and befriends you only to rip apart her prey in front of co-workers. She sees all women as adversaries.

6. The Politician – She is well connected in the office environment and shrewdly sabotages the work of her female counterparts.

7. The Passive Aggressor – (aka the timid intimidator) This individual is a friend to your face, and foe to your back. The passive aggressor operates from fear, but is sneaky in her approach by showing a façade of calm control of emotion. She often gives backhanded compliments; attacks in a subtle way, using deceitful tactics. She fears competition and any perceived roadblock; operates best under the guise of secret sabotage.

8. The Bystander – She is the innocent person involved in the attack. She is not involved in sabotage or much else in the way of catty behavior. All the same, she is aware of the situation, but does nothing to report or re-direct their behaviors.

What makes women more prone to catty behavior? Women by nature tend to have a strong desire to belong and connect. Because of this, women tend to place a higher level of importance on workplace friendships and relationships. It is also true that women seek out other women for support, both personally and professionally. And sometimes, the desire for support is implied rather than clearly communicated, making the expectation misunderstood. If one woman feels that support is not reciprocated as expected by her female counterpart, she may feel slighted and hurt, causing her to lash out at others. Another reason for women to be catty in the workplace, may be due to a power struggle. In order for women to have a positive working relationship, both women must have the perception that their level of power is even. If one of the women perceives there to be a shift in the balance of power, it may cause her to use indirect or passive aggressive behavior to re-establish herself and gain her self-worth and self-esteem.

So, Why do women feel more comfortable taking on other women? Part of the reason is that most women tend to be less confrontational after an attack and sometimes more willing to turn a blind eye on bad behavior. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to address the situation head-on and tend to address confrontation openly. The other part, I believe, would be that women still see themselves and their gender to be weaker in nature. In turn, I believe that this makes it easier to visualize and conceptualize an adversary as a “non-threat”, invoking a feeling of comfort and ease while taking on the role of “bully/catty bitch.” Women are also better at reading emotion, which in turn makes it easier for them to interpret another woman’s insecurity. They can easily exclude another woman or make her feel alienated or unwelcome with body language such as avoiding, ostracizing or making derogatory gestures toward her in social settings.

How might we be able to decipher that these bad behaviors are of the catty variety? Women tend to be more subtle in their abuse tactics, reminiscent of undercover covert operations. (Think along the lines of silent sabotage. For example: The co-worker who blind cc’s your boss on email exchanges and tries to set you up to fail.) Women are also great at subtly insulting another woman either in a gossiping manner or by belittling and undermining their women counter-parts. These behaviors are very difficult not to take personally.

So when does this catty behavior get toxic? The seriousness of catty behavior, especially in the work environment, takes a new light when the remarks and actions become so intense and vicious that it directly affects their women counterparts’ productivity, their ability to complete tasks that impact their job performance or that affect their comfort and safety in the work environment. (Think in terms of personal attacks or someone sabotaging or taking credit for another person’s work.) Mean women take advantage of other women’s vulnerabilities and insecurities. They will stop at nothing to get what they want, including backstabbing, undermining, and bullying.

What is the best way to disengage or protect yourself from catty behavior in the workplace?

1. Focus in on your job – In order to avoid catty behavior, busy yourself with what you were hired to do in the first place. Hunker down and focus on sharpening your skill set.

2. When Confronted, Don’t Respond – Stand firm in your conviction with controlled behavior and emotion. Never affirm catty bitch behavior.

3. Seek Out Positive People to Engage – Find people to connect to that do not engage in the behavior you are trying to avoid.

4. Kindly Express Your Desire to Remove Yourself from the Drama Politely convey to her that you are not at all interested in participating in gossip or negative talk.

5. Conquer the Witch Within – Your internal voice may be telling you to let her have it. Remember it is never a good idea to provoke and encourage more bad behavior with your own brand of bad behavior. Simply put, resist the urge.

6. Build Trust Carefully – We all have a desire to connect with others, but remember to be cautious and get to know your co-worker(s) before exchanging personal information.

7. Eliminate Drama – Apologize when it is needed. Own your behaviors and know people will respect you more when you admit to your faults.

8. Minimize Confrontation – Control your impulse to confront others who may have offended you. There is no need to keep a scoreboard tally of offenses.

9. Remain Pleasant and Poised – Just because others behave doesn’t in turn give you permission to reciprocate the same behavior. Be polite and remove yourself from the situation.

10. Show Support – Help each other. Always look for the best in your coworkers. You, after all, have no choice but to continue working with them.

If you are now feeling the guilt of previous catty behavior, the good news is this: catty behavior is curable! You can simply choose to dig in and look introspectively and honestly about who you are and who you would like to be. By doing so, you just may consider a paradigm shift in thinking. There is still time to learn to be confident in who you are. Part of that may be accepting that you are open to learning more. After all, it may be a good time to ditch the competitiveness and accept this time as an opportunity for personal reflection and growth. That female for whom you have secretly wished would choke on her morning muffin and die a sudden death, could be someone who may offer you insight into a new skill set.

To take my point  a step further, I believe it is high time women start respecting each other. We as women have worked 100+ years to gain opportunity for gender equality, yet by our own hand we are diminishing our efforts to succeed by engaging in these destructive and catty behaviors. We can step up now and promote each others’ professional and personal growth with a smile and positive attitude. Wouldn’t it be a better use of our energy if we chose to refrain from  judging and undermining our fellow women, and instead engaged in supporting and encouraging our female colleagues? Keep in mind, none of us would have been afforded the opportunities we have today if it weren’t for another woman paving the way.

Share your experiences with workplace cattiness?  Have you ever been the victim in a Workplace Power Play?  Maybe you were the one instigating the workplace turmoil? Either way, we want to hear your experiences.


AIBC Team Member



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