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Mean girl boss syndrome: Reality or misconception?

Career Tips
 Is the mean girl boss syndrome a reality? (Photo: Courtesy)

A few weeks ago, two female public figures, media personality Mandi Sarro and TV and radio personality Amina Abdi Rabar were accused on social media of being mean.

They both apologised to anyone they might have hurt, but it is worth noting both were not really given an opportunity to give their own side of the story in the court of social media, which can be a cruel and unfair platform.

Internationally, famous female personalities who have also caught the flak over their behaviour.  Some accused of not being as sweet as their public image include Ellen Lee DeGeneres and Tiwa Savage.

There are also accusations against Jennifer Lopez of appropriating songs of other artistes when she was building her music career.

Nicky Minaj is said to have created a toxic environment and was disrespectful to Mariah Carey, while they were both judges on American Idol.

And television personality Tyra Banks had the honour of having a book written about her supposedly mean and cruel antics behind the camera; the list goes on.

Interestingly enough, and ironically, no such list exists about men, even when they exhibit some of the traits that are labelled as toxic when worn by a woman.

This in no way excuses bad behaviour that may be exhibited by either men and women in authority or who have influence, but begs the question whether the mean girl boss syndrome is a reality or a misconception?

Boss here does not mean a boss literally, but any person in a position of authority, leadership or even influence.

There are those who argue that generalisations are dangerous, but to ignore the experiences of people would be a fallacy.

We have all heard stories that abound about female bosses that are not so good and these anecdotal experiences are both by men and women.

On the other side of the spectrum are those who argue the decision to be mean or a bully is an individual one and to make it gender specific is not only unfair, but discriminatory.

Further, it is possible that some lady bosses may be perceived as being mean, not because they are, but because women in authority often take on traits that have in the past been labelled as ‘masculine’.

These include assertiveness, decisiveness and being brusque and ambitious; not everyone may be comfortable or familiar with this side of women, or like this male management style when adopted by women.

 Emotional intelligence is very important in leadership management (Photo: Courtesy)

Not gender specific

Derek Bbanga, an emotional intelligence coach argues that people in authority, whether men or women, have the potential to be mean and scary, and it is not gender-specific.

“The days when being in leadership or being a boss meant being this unapproachable figure who sat in their own office corner and caused fear when they walked into the office are long gone. These days, being an effective boss is about having high emotional intelligence,” he says.

“Emotional Intelligence is very important in leadership management. This requires personal self-awareness, self-awareness of your team, and awareness of how you react to yourself, to others and to different situations,” says Bbanga.

“Emotional intelligence is key in leadership. It helps a leader to be able to be intuitive and to know how to bring the best out of people. I believe that women often have this instinct more naturally than men and should take advantage of it because it is a gift. Leaders should bring empathy, and gratitude to the workplace as opposed to my way or the highway.”

Bbanga says that an effective leader has the responsibility of creating psychological safety for their team.

“Once there is psychological safety, the team feel accepted and respected and can take criticism without feeling like they have been side-lined. Psychological safety creates an environment where the team can flourish.”

Edith Tendwa, a human resources consultant, who has worked in the corporate world for over 20 years, says that the mean girl boss syndrome is a reality she has witnessed.

“The corporate world is a nasty and cutthroat place, and if one is not careful it can change who you are and not in a good way. In my career, I have seen women who have been wonderful leaders, but I have also seen women who were not just mean to everyone, but even worse to other women.

“So yes, some women in leadership are mean to everyone else, and not because they are women, but because they are simply not particularly nice people. It happens, but that is not and should not be everyone’s story,” says Tendwa.

She adds; “I believe that we do not have to be ‘mean girls’, it is possible to overcome our urge to compete with other women and start working together. If you are in a leadership position, remember you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

“Be kind to the people who work under your leadership. Get to know them and understand how to bring the best out of them; there is only so far that instilling fear or bullying can get you.”

Tendwa says those in leadership have the responsibility to create a healthy working environment where every person can thrive.

Who’s a boss?

Joan Kirera, a therapist who specialises in marriage and family says that before embracing the mean girl boss syndrome, we must acknowledge there is an unhealthy and traditional misconception out there about how a boss looks at life.

“A boss is this person who is feared, one that is a harsh and unapproachable figure in the office. This is very unhealthy and not good for office morale or even productivity.”

Joan argues that toxicity is not based on gender and is a choice, and although there are those in leadership who are mean to both men and even women, there are a number of reasons that help to fuel the misconceptions about women in leadership.

“Firstly, women are often more emotionally expressive than men. In terms of leadership, this can be an advantage as it can add to one’s emotional intelligence in the office, but also a disadvantage in some instances where it can be viewed as a weakness.

“Secondly, culturally women are always expected to be more nurturing and less aggressive in general, and so a woman who takes on traits that have traditionally been considered masculine like assertiveness, decisiveness and ambition, which are great qualities for a boss can be a threat not just to men, but also women serving under them,” she says.

Culturally speaking, women are expected to lean more towards nurturing as opposed to leadership positions. They are expected to take care of the children and the home.

They are not expected to be in leadership posts and worse still, to lead men. Further, it is not only men who struggle to grasp this, but also women themselves who sometimes struggle with the role of a woman in leadership as opposed to a man in leadership.

The third factor that Joan notes is the effect of both culture and religion.

“As a result of both culture and religion, there is this expectation that women need to submit in all areas of their life. That leads to the assumption that women should always go below the man, and so you can see the confusion that often ensues when a woman is put in a leadership role. This can lead to misconceptions that are not only true, but unfair to women in leadership.”

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