The Good Trouble Company

The “Cat Fight Syndrome” – Don’t Take The Bait!

We could have been a united force for good. Books could have been written about, or even by, us. Ahhh, the TED talks we could’ve done together about how we had transformed our company and our industry. Instead, we got trapped into the age-old, and some say genetically predestined, woman-on-woman rivalry in the workplace, sadly diminishing the unmatched impact either of us should have had on our organization, on the people who worked there, and on each other. It’s a regret I truly carry with me to this day.

I had dinner last week with my former colleague, whom I will call Sarah for this blog.  Sarah and I were once close at work, that is to say, we worked closely on the projects we were assigned or had initiated. We started at nearly the same time, told we were needed as “change agents” to help transform the human resources function of our organization.  I thought, “Perfect! Where do I sign up?”

Sarah and I are both seasoned leaders.  Both strong women who are comfortable challenging the status quo.  Each of us feared no conflict as we charged toward the fight, up over any obstacle, no hill too steep to climb. We must have been frightening to some less bold. Undoubtedly, we had many opinions on how things should happen in order to help make the right things happen.  We sought to win each battle and claim each victory.

All of this garnered each of us a set of loyal fans, as well as detractors. Yet poignantly, we both come from a place of truly wanting to add real value, coupled with the desire to make meaningful change because we care so deeply about the people we serve.

The parallels don’t end there: we also had quite a lot in common outside of work: our upbringing, our love of travel, both our husbands coming from similar backgrounds. Describing us here, it seems inexplicable that we were not soul sisters from the start.

That’s what makes me so mad.  We had all the makings of a powerhouse duo, not just on an intellectual level, but at the heart.  Yet, neither of us trusted the other. We had every reason to remain connected beyond the confines of work, but we didn’t. 

We talked about why at dinner.

Turns out we both experienced what I call “the cat fight” syndrome.  We were pitted against each other as competitors, rivals, from the start. Roles all too expected, all too familiar.  Our shared boss gave us parallel goals and objectives, but not really united ones – yet each of us raced off to achieve what we could, by whatever means possible, mentioning our work to the other only in passing and in mid-stream. Don’t get me wrong, we made many attempts to collaborate, but in truth, we felt more pressure to achieve our own set of goals, than the support to achieve shared ones.  So, when misunderstandings inevitably arose, well, it’s not my fault, we each sniffed.

The most shameful part was how we allowed ourselves to be manipulated by colleagues and peers. People sat on the sidelines watching us, two veritable titans in each of our spaces, to see who would win. Some waited to take sides to choose the winning gladiator. Some took sides early, willing to rise or fall with the victor.

Perhaps the worst were the ones who played the mind games to ensure the continued narrative that we couldn’t get along, feeding each of us gossip and conjecture about what the other had said about or done to the other, or so she had heard. We heard “watch out for her, she’s out to get you,” or “don’t trust her,” “she wants the top job and she’ll do anything to get it, including stepping over you any chance she can get.”

I believed these seemingly well-meaning peers and colleagues, grateful for the bit of intelligence that would no doubt ensure my “victory.” I thought the gossiper was my friend, or at least my ally. Apparently, Sarah did, too.  We both did things that weakened our inherent power, rather than lifting it up.

The only problem was it wasn’t true. None of it. Gossip given only to enrage or embolden one of us.

What we didn’t know was that these same manipulators were also feeding untruths to our boss, undermining his trust in us and seeing a cat fight where there originally wasn’t one, or at least shouldn’t have been one. Instead of shutting it down with shared goals and outcomes, he fanned the rivalry until it could no longer serve the organization.  We had fallen straight into the trap that had been set for us as strong women leaders.

Not once had we really talked to each other along the way to get at the truth or make a true alliance.  Sure, over a few dinners, a lunch here and there we tried to reassure one another that all was well.  But in truth, not once did we assume positive intent when we heard unflattering news. Not once had we established implicit or explicit ground rules, a common purpose or goals for our function, or even shared initiatives. We certainly didn’t discuss the issues that undermined our mistrust and rivalry. If we had, we would’ve discovered what we did at dinner this week: it was all a fraud of a competition. Manufactured by others, bought into by us.

Talking to other professional women, few were surprised by our story, most nodding knowingly at the notion of a female rival. Some were surprised by the notion that the reasons underlying the rivalry were, in fact, lies, fed by the lack of communication and inherent mistrust in our woman-to-woman relationship.

Sadly, by the time we finally had our dinner, Sarah and I could clearly see that we both had believed the hype, trusted those who were spreading the hate and realized we’d actively worked to make it true, preferring to believe others than what we should have done – believe in ourselves and each other.

If you’re honest, how many times has some version of this story happened to you, or unfolded in front of you?

  • How many times have you truly liked a colleague, wanted to trust the another, only to be persuaded by the crowd that you cannot, that you should not?
  • You believed that if you didn’t listen, you’d end up chewed up and spat out, so you behaved badly yourself, becoming the very untrustable rival that you had been played out to be.
  • And how much time have you spent agonizing about what another person was “up to”, going over in your mind all the various scenarios and your responses to them, only now to discover all that mental energy wasn’t even necessary in the first place?
  • Were you ever swayed by the gossip, the rumors and the politics at play all around you, yet your instincts told you otherwise, or maybe your desire to trust was eroded?

How many of us wish we could go back and fix an old hurt, right a wrong you were part of, give someone another chance, or wake up and see we were wrong to listen to the jealous chorus of folks who wanted to keep their own turf intact?  I cannot believe I was one of these people, but it’s true.

I am so grateful that I didn’t waste the second chance I was given with Sarah. It was cathartic and real.  It was years overdue. I know she feels the same way.  We took a meaningful step toward repairing a relationship that matters to us both from here forward. 

In writing about this, I’ve realized a few key lessons (or perhaps been reminded of them) that I will carry forward with me from now on:

Assume positive intent. See the person behind the title, behind the job duties, behind the facade. Under an exterior of strength, skill, seasoning and even a fancy suit is a person who probably has the same insecurities, ambitions, responsibilities and vulnerabilities that you do. Don’t see their actions or words in a negative light – stop for a moment and consider the innocence of intent. Work to lift everyone up as you lift yourself up, too.

Be vulnerable.  Had I just taken the time (and risk) to speak to Sarah (and myself at the time) honestly, and not politically, I might have felt differently about her intensions, and we’d have saved a lot of time and wasted energy maneuvering around one another. At the very least, I could have said that I was genuine and true. Just writing this blog is part of my work to be even more vulnerable.

Don’t buy into the myth of the “cat fight syndrome.” There are people out there who stand to gain by keeping us fighting. Don’t fall for it anymore. If you hear bad things about colleague X from your co-workers, question their motive before you act on it.  Ask yourself: WHY are they sharing this with me right now? Does it jive with what you know about colleague X?  What do those co-workers have to gain, or lose, by having me believe the gossip? I bet you may find the real reason or motive behind the gossip is more to do with the co-worker than it does about you or colleague X.  Don’t take the bait.

Stop playing into the stereotypes of women competing with women.  Whether you’re the “mean girl” or the “victim” of a female bully, those days are over.  Yes, we are strong. But imagine how unstoppable we will be together.  There is plenty of everything to go around – plenty of room to grow, to be successful in our own right, to stand for one another and support each other’s dreams.  Let’s stop competing and start collaborating together to change the world. It really is that simple and that powerful.

Speak up, woman! If you feel doubtful or insecure about something, talk about it the moment you feel it.  Don’t put it off and put it off. Don’t bury it. Save yourself a ton of wasted time and get to the heart of the matter immediately.  At least that way you’ll know what is real, what is insecurity talking and what is manipulation designed to undermine our trust in our female colleagues.

If you feel jealously or envy towards another, name that feeling and see if you can’t turn it into curiosity about how and why that person is so enviable – perhaps asking for insight into how they are achieving the things you admire.  You might even find out that the other person envies you too.  Turn your colleague’s accomplishments into your source of pride, knowing that you rooted for her every step of the way.

If we see another woman (or man) hurting, even if it feels awkward or scary to reach out, just do it.  Please.  We are more similar than different, and she/he needs you to make the first move.  Be brave and take the risk.  Pay it forward. For someday, it could, and probably will be, you.

So today I humbly honor and thank my many female colleagues: They get me.  They let me be me, just as I am.  They make me better than I could be without them. We need more of that, not less.  And especially to Sarah: I care about you, my friend. Always have. We just couldn’t see it under all the bullshit.  And it was all bullshit.  That’s the truth.