uncovering lateral aggression

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Stop us if this sounds familiar: you’re slaving over a big project at work — the kind of project that would grab your boss’s attention. It’s you and another female colleague. When the boss asks how it’s going at the next meeting, she just mentions how well her parts of the project are going, and blames any delays on you…which you’re hearing for the first time in front of your boss. Instead of lifting you up, she basically bad-mouthed you to make herself look good. Or, maybe the one throwing a female colleague under the bus has been you.

There’s actually a name for this woman-on-woman bullying: lateral aggression. It’s when marginalized groups fight each other. In other words, an oppressed party begins oppressing each other to create an internal power struggle of sorts. This can take the shape of gossiping, bullying, finger pointing, backstabbing, shunning. And in many offices, women are doing it to each other. In some industries, it’s more prevalent than others. For example, up to 85 percent of nurses say they’ve experienced lateral aggression, according to research. While it’s a female-dominated industry, most of the power still resides with the typically male physicians, so you end up with in-fighting for limited power among women who should actually be more like teammates.

But let’s get one thing straight: Lateral aggression isn’t just another way to blame women for toxic work cultures and excuse bad behavior by men, who are usually at the top. That’s not what we’re saying. Lateral aggression is actually an insidious byproduct of the way office cultures have been designed, with this scarcity mentality in mind. If so few women ever rise to the top, you can bet it will create a competitive environment (“Only one of us can make it, so if it’s going to be me, that means it can’t be her…”) that makes women see each other as threats instead of allies. And even if you work in a more gender-balanced office, more senior female workers who came up in an everyone’s-out-for-themselves culture may still harbor that towards younger colleagues of the same sex (“I went through it, so she should too.”).

So what can be done about it? Last month, the League of Badass Women hosted several intimate dinners and gatherings around the world to get women talking openly about lateral aggression, from experiencing it to perpetrating it to ending it. Here, we’ve rounded up their three top tips for how to reduce it.

Ask yourself: “Am I doing it too?”

Odds are, the answer is yes. The first step to combatting lateral aggression is admitting how it might be showing up in your own office and, well, with you.In fact, many of the dinner guests admitted that they have probably displayed lateral aggression towards other women in the workplace. Given how our work culture has been designed to foster this exact type of behavior, you might subconsciously get territorial or competitive. Take note of how you’re playing into these narratives — acknowledging it is the first step to short-circuiting the behavior.

Be a force for good.

Once you recognize if you’re actively (or even passively) displaying lateral aggression in the office, vow to make a change. Find ways — big and small — to support other women instead of feeling like only one of you can succeed. If you see another colleague engaging in lateral aggression, call her on it. Take time to mentor women in your department, so you begin to proactively create a supportive community. If you want to go big, consider asking your boss to sponsor a team meeting on the topic.

Approach it head-on.

We all engage in office gossip, snippy emails, and snarky commentary about our colleagues. In the moment, you may feel justified (her email was underhanded! she did steal your idea!), but instead of keeping the lateral aggression cycle going by talking about her behind her back, approach the colleague in question directly. And remember: it doesn’t have to be aggressive or confrontational — it could be as simple as saying, “It seems like we got off on the wrong foot on this project. How can we work better together?” Will it be uncomfortable? Most likely, but you may be able to inch your way towards a less toxic work environment in the process — and create allies so you can help each other get ahead.

–Jihan Thompson