We compete with people who have something we want and are close enough to our position that we stand to benefit from the outcome. Competition in these circumstances is nothing bad or wrong; it keeps us on our toes and shapes us into better versions of ourselves. But when I look around the business world, it seems that competition between women often exceeds healthy levels. Why is it that women tend to be harder on each other than their peers in general?
There are many parts to this issue, but I think jealousy plays a significant role. Human nature is to compare ourselves to other people, especially people who we perceive as similar. Comparisons make it easy to want what others have and put us at risk of becoming jealous if we can't get it. Jealousy can fuel fierce competition between women, especially when we stop competing fairly.
Comparisons make it easy to want what others have and put us at risk of becoming jealous if we can't get it.
But jealousy only explains why the competition between women is often so intense; it does not explain why we get catty, unleash our inner mean girl, and viciously tear each other down. And where did this mean girl come from anyway? Many of us developed her somewhere around junior high school when hormones caused great insecurities, and nothing was more important than being accepted by the cool clique. We developed the mean girl to elevate us above our insecurities and gain the status we desired when we lacked the maturity and social skills to achieve our goals in other ways. But why did we resort to such a terrible way to compete?
Dr. Lisa Firestone, a clinical psychologist and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association, explains that women learn to compete this way because society still considers it more acceptable for men to be competitive while giving women feedback that competitiveness is undesirable. Dr. Firestone offers that because we developed "under the stigma of being the "weaker sex," women have historically been expected to be more covert or manipulative in their efforts to achieve success," and we learned to deal with competition indirectly.
...because we developed "under the stigma of being the "weaker sex," women have historically been expected to be more covert or manipulative in their efforts to achieve success," and we learned to deal with competition indirectly.
As women, we must change these norms by developing a healthier and more direct approach to competition, and we must learn to keep the mean girl out of the workplace by vowing always to compete fairly. Below are three tips for developing this skill and curbing catty competition.
1) Develop Self-Awareness
Ask yourself, do you have catty tendencies? Are you running in a pack of cliquish, catty friends? The mean girl, after all, rarely hunts alone. These are difficult questions, but realization is the first step to becoming self-aware.
Understand that your words and actions have power. Be thoughtful before speaking or acting. Commit to always take the high road -- a difficult route when you have the perfect quip. Letting your mouth and emotions fly might bring momentary satisfaction, but in the long run, you'll be happier with leaving your remarks unsaid. It takes great restraint to resist the perfect, biting comment, but it gets easier with preparation. Develop a plan for how you will respond in these situations and stick to it. Plan, for example, to never give an immediate reaction without first considering your intended outcome.
2) Focus on the Actual Competition
Compete directly and fairly. You are not in competition with anyone but yourself. If you want to achieve something, you have to become a better version of yourself to earn it.
I learned this lesson in grad school when catty actions from a colleague caused me anger and frustration. After spending too long dwelling on these unhealthy behaviors, I realized I had no control over her actions. I focused all my attention on beating her academically and, in doing so, used my competitive nature to push me to improve myself. Winning silly games and contests only builds the ego, but self-improvement is what brings success.
3) Set a Good Example
Remain committed to the high road, and find others to join you. If you are part of a cruel clique, try reaching out to work with someone outside your club—team up with someone you can elevate. You can still receive recognition for your contributions while acknowledging others when they do something well. And if you see other women being catty towards each other, become an active bystander and step in.
My friend Katie is a good example of someone who recognizes others' contributions and never acts catty. When I asked her how she resisted the urge to get mean when under assault, she smiled and said that I should hear her inner dialogue. "I scheme delicious solutions in my head, but I never let them out. I let catty competition push me to overcome by becoming a better version of myself. It's not instant gratification, but it's playing the long game. I think it's worked pretty well. Also, I am truly grateful for others' contributions. I find collaboration will launch you much further than unnecessary competition."
So, ladies, I think it's time for us all to grow up and develop a more sophisticated toolkit for achieving what we want. If catty behavior is your go-to reaction, leave the junior high version of yourself behind. Learn to compete directly by focusing on personal growth and achievable milestones. Replace your current clique with a clique of kindness, and recruit members to hold each other accountable. But don't get frustrated if the change is slow. The way we learned to compete is a habit, and habits don't change overnight.
Earn the respect of your peers and superiors by promoting others and recognizing their achievements. You will feel much better about yourself, and others will become more likely to acknowledge your achievements as well.
WRITTEN BYJenn Donahue