05/20/2010 04:51 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Women: Stop People From Criticizing You Behind Your Back

Someone asked me what makes women so catty. First, I don't believe most women spend their time looking to put other woman down. Second, when anyone engages in this behavior, man or woman, it is based on their own lack of self-esteem. They feel they must put others down to pump themselves up. Third, I think those who judge women as catty are engaging in the same behavior they decry.

Yes backbiting behavior still exists, especially in corporate cultures that encourage internal competition instead of building communities of trust. In these days where people are desperate to keep their jobs, the behavior is exaggerated. If leaders don't promote cultures where there is a sense of unity around the vision, the worst of behaviors shine through. In these situations, women may use their tongues as swords for protection.

Aside from corporate cultures, I have found that cattiness decreases as confidence strengthens. Overall, women have become more confident in their abilities to accomplish great things. They do not need to criticize and sabotage others to succeed. I think cattiness wanes as women gain in power.

However, women that are confident in their contributions are often labeled as competitive and insensitive. The problem is that they don't care about their peers. They don't backbite. They just don't pay attention. This leads others, men and women, to call them names.

Superstars often focus more on their work than on their relationships. They love impressing more than connecting. They prefer to work on their computers and phones than to engage in small talk. Their actions provoke jealousy. They step on toes. They hog the limelight. They don't mean to intentionally hurt, but people feel arrows in their backs nonetheless.

I had a client who was an outstanding performer but her boss said she wasn't ready to be promoted into leadership because of how she related to her peers. She admitted that she loved being the star, which overshadowed those around her.

Even more damaging, when we looked at the three assumptions that Superstars live by she owned up to all three beliefs. I explain these assumptions in my book, Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction:

1) I am always right,

2) I know more because I've done my homework and

3) everything is up to me because no one else can do it as well.

These assumptions naturally distanced her from her colleagues. Her attitude was smug, which seeped into her nonverbal gestures. This led to her colleagues naming her a backstabber. They did not see her as their Queen. They saw her as the enemy.

I asked her what specific activities she could do to be more inclusive with her peers. In addition to showing them more respect, she said she would take more interest in their projects and look for ways to help them solve their most pressing issues. Becoming an advocate for their needs would make her a valuable ally.

This meant she had to listen to them more in meetings. She also decided to set up individual meetings with them to better understand their goals and issues. Hopefully, these meetings would also serve to rebuild any trust she had broken in the past.

Then I asked her to describe the competitiveness her peers accused her of. She laughed and said she only competed with herself. Yet when we reviewed the goals she had made so far, she still stood in the superior role of offering, not asking for help.

Again with humility, she admitted that she needed to "get over herself" and acknowledge the wealth of abilities and wisdom her peers brought to the table. We talked about the many ways she could become a collaborator with her peers, which started with asking for and respecting their ideas. She also promised to notice and praise her peers for their ideas, effort, and results.

In the end, she said that if she were truly focused on improving the bottom line, she needed to be relationship-focused as well as results-focused. She agreed to sincerely ask her peers for their feedback as well as ideas, including their evaluation of her leadership presence. We explored how vulnerability is actually viewed as a strength of leadership.

The purpose for earning the respect of your peers is not to win a popularity contest but to successfully achieve your goals. Your peers will either bolster or hinder your attempts to move forward. They can generously offer assistance or underhandedly sabotage your projects. You can foster or decrease cattiness by how you treat your peers.

Executive coach Scott Eblin calls the failure to look to your left and your right to your team of peers a bad case of "tunnel vision." You need to establish collaborative relationships with your colleagues to succeed.

Marcia Reynolds is a leadership coach and speaks on issues high-achieving women face today. Visit her site at for updates on Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction, release date June 14.