As business partners and authors who have worked together
for over twenty years, psychotherapist Katherine Crowley and executive coach
Kathi Elster know a thing or two about nurturing healthy workplace
relationships. Following up the success of their 2007 book Working With You
is Killing Me, the author duo takes a more gender-specific approach to
dealing with the tribulations of today's workplace.
Amazon.com spoke with
Crowley and Elster about their latest book Mean Girls at Work.
You have written several books now as an author team;
it seems like it would be challenging. What's your strategy?
Kathi: I think the beauty is that Katherine is a
psychotherapist, and I'm an executive coach. So we really don't confuse the two
messages. I think we're very clear on our contributions. So when we were
tackling Mean Girls, Katherine would say "this is psychologically what's
going on with this woman," and I would say "Ok, so in the workplace"”I think
she's gotta call a meeting, or I think she better write an email."
Katherine: In terms of [how we actually get the words on the
page], we basically have conversations with each other. I'm usually at the
keyboard typing out what we're saying, and then we shape it, we print it out, I
give it to Kathi, she gives it back to me, we shape it some more, and on it
goes. We've really found a way to work together.
Kathi: We had a client whose known us for years. She read
the book and said "Oh, Kathi said that! Oh, Katherine said that!" Once you get
to know us, and know the voice, you know who said what.
You mention at the beginning of Mean Girls at Work
that you've interviewed hundreds of different women in different industries. Do
certain industries have "meaner" women than others?
Katherine: That's a great question. I think the dynamics of
women working with women have been stronger in certain industries for many
years. For example in hospitals, where nurses are famous"”and infamous"”for
treating each other rather harshly. That's always been a female-dominated
profession. And the fashion industry, as we all know, has an amazing reputation
on the one hand for women creating incredibly beautiful things, but on the
other hand competing with each other in very covert and indirectly aggressive
Kathi: The fields that were predominantly women had the
worst problems. But now that women have infiltrated every industry, it's pretty
standard now. I don't think it's industry-specific at all anymore. But nursing
is a tough one. They have a saying in nursing: "We eat our young." We've had the
privilege of working with nurses for years. Their profession is so admirable,
but they have this problem.
Your book discusses different "types" of mean girls.
What is the most pervasive type?
Kathi: The bulk of mean girls are passively mean. Women are
conflicted. Women want to be liked at work and they want to make friends. The
conflict is that they also want to succeed. How can you be liked"”be friends
with everybody"”and compete with them? That's the dilemma.
Katherine: We also write about three categories of women who
don't intend to be mean, but their colleagues may interpret their behavior as
mean. Those three types are also very common"¦she has the best intentions but
she may be very bossy or very righteous or very controlling or tell you she knows
the answer to everything. That woman doesn't even know she's being mean, but
she could ruffle a lot of feathers.
Getting good feedback about how you're perceived at
work isn't always easy. How will your reader know is she is actually the "mean
Kathi: We wrote this book in a way where we are asking [the
reader] all the time: "Have you ever rolled your eyes? Have you ever talked
about another girl?" We pose the question many times. We all have the ability
to be perceived as mean. We ask the reader, "See where you can find yourself in
this book." And writing this book, I found myself saying more times than I like
to admit, "Oh, I've done that!"
I am a guy, and I think guys could use a book like
this. Could a hypothetical "Mean Men at Work" be written from a female
perspective? Or do you think that's a book only a man should write?
Katherine: My bias is that it should be written by a man.
And maybe edited by a woman (laughs). First of all, men know better how they're
mean to each other. But I think women are really good at picking up on
the more subtle behaviors and signals that both men and women give each other.
Kathi: In our other books, we didn't get too gender
specific. We talked about bad behavior in the workplace. Bad bosses, bad
coworkers, saboteurs. This is the first gender-specific book we've written and
we thought long and hard about it.
What has the feedback for Mean Girls at Work been like
compared to your previous books, Working for You Isn't Working for Me and
Working with You Is Killing Me?
Kathi: When "Working with You Is Killing Me" came out
in 2006 it was quite sensational. Nobody had talked like that. There were books
about emotional intelligence, but nobody was nailing it the way we were. In
interviews, people would ask us, "What's the worst thing people do?" It
was very sensational. I'm finding with this book, we're getting the same volume
of interest but it's being handled more thoughtfully. No one is
sensationalizing it. I like that much better. We're having a much more
interesting dialogue about work, and taking women seriously at work.
Katherine: I'd like to add another twist to it. This book
for some reason has been received negatively by a certain segment of the female
population. 85% of the women read it and love it, but there a segment that
really finds it offensive, that doesn't like the term "mean girls"... the notion
of giving women tips for being more professional, rather than responding
personally, is offensive to them.
Kathi: And we understand [the criticism]. We thought long
about doing this book because woman have gone so far. Do we now really want to
talk about the dark side?
Katherine: ...or feed in to stereotypes of catfights? With
"Working with You Is Killing Me" they may have sensationalized it, but no one
said, "This offends me to the core."
Kathi: ...and we can't generalize about this group of women,
except to say that they are very pro-women. We can't say they are mean girls.
They don't think it is appropriate to talk about what we might do wrong.
What are some books that have shaped you personally and
Kathi: I love business books since I'm the executive coach.
I really appreciated "Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson, phenomenal writer. There
were so many business lessons in that book. I also read spiritual books: "The
New Earth" by Eckart Tolle, anything the Dalai Lama writes.
Katherine: My most recent favorite book was "Crash of the
Titans" by Greg Farrell. That was fascinating because it was all about greed,
and spin and deception, and high risk, high gain.
What's on the bedside table right now?
Katherine: I'm currently reading "Beloved." I'm late on that
one! In my free time I read therapy books, like The Dance of Anger, Addictive
Thinking, Money Drunk. I actually really like Malcolm Gladwell. Anything he
writes is usually on my bedside table. And I don't usually read novels, but I'm
also reading "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?"
Kathi: we're actually trying to get a radio show. That isn't
here yet. We are also developing a podcast series. We do a lot of coaching in
companies and partnership mediations. It's an ongoing business.
What about plans for another book?
Kathi: You know, we're taking a break. We like to enjoy our
Katherine: We also like to make sure that the topic is
pertinent. This topic of women competing with women"”that found us. We had a
speaking gig at a science and technology conference and we were asked to talk
about "women haters," which we had never heard of. Their request caused us to
research, write, and give a workshop. That led to the book. It hit a nerve.
So the next topic may find you.
Katherine: Right. We have to find that nerve.