Seven (7) Ways to Respond to Bullying and a Queen Bee

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Are you experiencing prolonged harassment?  It may be that you may have just encountered a bully, or, when adding gender into the mix, experiencing an adult “mean girl.” As the number of women in the workforce and in leadership increases, stress in leadership roles has naturally affected women, as it does men,  and can include gender-nuanced displays of ongoing aggression.

Queen Bee Lego person, by levork, Flickr
Queen Bee Lego person, by levork, Flickr

Regardless of gender identity, many people have experienced competitiveness, lack of support, undermining as well as hazing and harassment on the job.  The term “King Wasp” has been used in reference to Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly axing his company’s popular flexible work program named “Results-Only Work Environment” or ROWE. Currently, in the time of Covid, labor shortages favor ROWE and flexible work arrangements that eliminate tedious, unnecessary commutes. Just today (February 2022) I have heard another story of a seemingly ego-centric move by a boss (being more boss than leader) requiring her direct reports to commute to the office on Mondays at 9 a.m. and Fridays, at the end of the day, simply to report out on the weeks work. The gatherings appear to serve little purpose, duplicated communication already happening on required electronic reports and caused resentment and even open rebellion by senior staff who refused to come to the meetings. An additional twist was that the “boss lady” lived close to the workplace, yet had little sympathy for her direct reports who had commutes of over an hour or even two. The nature of their work required travel elsewhere, earning the twice weekly corporate commute to be viewed by her team as very low value, frustrating task. Did people on her team leave? Yes. Is ROWE making a comeback in 2022, the Covid-era? Yes it is.

(This post was updated in 2022 with Covid references and more current gender specific terms.)

Poor leadership is one thing. It escalates to a new level when the boss engages in an series of aggressive acts targeted at one person. It could be a form of professional, or even personal jealousy. The offenders may want what you have, especially if you appear, in their mind’s eye, as more intelligent in meetings, or are younger, more fit, more attractive or have some other quality they envy.

There is no either / or between being competitive and collaborative. You have to be both and decide which in each situation.”

Cathie Black, Former Chairman and President, Hearst Magazines, on the realities of corporate business

I first heard the term,”Queen Bee,” at my alma mater, University of Michigan, as a young professional in my 20s.  The woman so named had some of the characteristics.  However, my experience is that she mentored many, many women successfully, so for her, the term did not stick.

An article by Catalyst highlighted, in contrast, that women do indeed help other women get ahead, citing that women leaders are more likely to develop new female talent than men are:

65% percent of women who received career development support are now developing new talent, compared to 56% percent of men — and 73% of the women developing new talent are developing other women, compared to 30% of men.

Paying It Forward Pays Back for Business Leaders – Catalyst . org


A 2011 survey of 1,000 working women by the American Management Association found that 95% of them believed they were undermined by another woman at some point in their careers.

According to a 2008 University of Toronto study of nearly 1,800 U.S. employees, women working under female supervisors reported more symptoms of physical and psychological stress than did those working under male supervisors.

The Wall Street Journal, March 2013

Is it changing yet in 2022? Two quotes from two Catalyst presidents…

“Paying it forward is an essential element of being an outstanding leader, and it benefits everyone involved—it’s a virtuous circle that leads to more of the same.”

Ilene H. Lang, President & CEO of Catalyst, 2013

…gender equity has taken a major step backward during the pandemic. Globally, women lost more than 64 million jobs in 2020—or 5% of all jobs held by women—according to Oxfam International. Women’s labor participation in the US hit a 33-year low in January 2021.

Lorraine Hariton, President & CEO, Catalyst, 2022

As to the motivations and context for adult bullies and women in particular, it appears that bullies share certain motivations — a need for attention, fear of competition, anger at the way they’re treated at home. In the long-term, female bullies suffer as much as male bullies, because eventually, those closest to them tire of the manipulations, though there’s a lack of research as to whether female bullies turn to drugs and alcohol and end up in jail at the same rates that male bullies do.

At the time of this original post, there are a few key differences, though: Male bullies come in all shapes and sizes, from the popular football captain to the social outcast, while female bullies tend to be the popular girls, another factor that may help them escape punishment.

And while some male bullies appear to lash out because they haven’t developed empathy for others, girls seem to possess ample amounts of empathy; so much so, in fact, that they know exactly how to harm a perceived threat.

…female bullies know how to get a fellow female to divulge a secret, and then she knows how to reveal it in a way that will maximize the embarrassment for the victim.

Source:  Are there differences between male and female bullies?

Why tolerated? Why allowed?
From discussion, Bullying class at The Center for Independent Living

For those who have encountered harassment, a Queen Bee or a bully, here are some resources from a session I taught at the Center for Independent Living in Ann Arbor, using material I gleaned from research and from a Wayne State professor who has special knowledge of workplace aggression and peer witnessing as a method to deal with bullying.

It was sobering to see that the topic of workplace bullying filled the room. We dug into the topic and available research for two hours.

The most frequent form of workplace aggression is not physical, it is emotional and psychological in nature.

Loraleigh Keashly, Ph.D., Wayne State University
Interpersonal and Systemic Aspects of Emotional Abuse at Work: The Target’s Perspective, Violence and Victims, New York: 2001. Vol. 16, Iss. 3; pg. 233, 32 pg

We discussed the following seven (7) points:

  1. Realize that as the target of a bully, your power is limited.
  2. Take great care before using traditional, upward reporting as it could actually make it worse.
  3. Take notice of the power of your peer networks. Including “peer witnesses” of bullying incidents; simply having someone else show up and observe the situation can eliminate the immediate threat.
  4. Remember that often it really isn’t about you, though the impact of a bully’s behavior is very real.
  5. Reach out to others outside of the hierarchy for help and perspective. If your organization has a confidential, respected employee assistance program, use it!
  6. Maintain your professionalism at all times.
  7. Talk with family, friends and your peer networks. They can be a lifeline when the going gets rough.
Deb Nystrom, Bullying at Work facilitator, with the Center for Independent Living group
Deb Nystrom, Bullying at Work facilitator, with the Center for Independent Living group

I was both moved and appalled as I listened to stories and struggles by those who already were dealing with challenges in their lives such as a disability, trauma or condition affecting the way they negotiated workplace demands.

I marveled at how they attempted to cope with their workloads while dealing with harassment or bullying. The peer network information from the presentation and research on what actions to take in a bullying situation seemed to help.

It was also a catharsis for me. I had suffered through a year of bullying at one time in higher education.  It was a male supervisor, not a female. Fortunately, a network of female leaders and colleagues and my family supported me during that difficult time.

I told the group, if someone like me, with many resources, a confident personality and a large network of helpful people struggled as I did, even more so we need to help each other when harassment and bullying happens on the job. We need to do what we can to help each other succeed. Now, during a Covid-era world, it’s more important than ever to support good leadership and eliminate workplace abuses.

Thanks to Lisa Mangigian for organizing and to Stephanie Stiles for photography supporting at the session at the Center for Independent Living in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Don’t just stand for the success of other women – insist on it.”

Gail Blanke, President and CEO, Lifedesigns

Take action to learn more. Have a chat about improving your organization’s knowledge of what’s next in the Covid-era, as well as learning more about Deb’s services to help your organization thrive. Contact Deb via these options. We love comments, so also feel free to share what you think about bullying in the 2020 decade and efforts to deal with it.

Related posts:
  • Choices for High Performance Teams, Groups and Psuedo-Teams: Achievement Is How You Say It!
  • Beyond Resilience: Givers, Takers, Matchers and Anti-Fragile Systems
  • Company Priorities Reveal People Values and Forecast Long Term Profitability
  • Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons license.

    Published by dnrevel

    Change & transition, organization development & team facilitation and retreats. Also REVELN Gardens for flowers and heirloom tomatoes. My LinkedIn profile:

    11 thoughts on “Seven (7) Ways to Respond to Bullying and a Queen Bee

    1. Great article. It brought back some interesting memories. Shortly after becoming a single mom many years ago, a woman was key in my getting work in a major national corporation. Needless to say this was a lifesaver for me. Within a year it was this same woman and our female acting director who in tandem harassed me daily. I was doing exceptionally well and their senior mgmt were aware of it – thus the reason to make me look bad. I reported their behaviour to HR who on the QT arranged a transfer to another department, and the women were put on notice about was expected from them in the future. Hmmm- I’d forgotten about this. Just as well…


      1. Wow! Patricia, your story is so similar to mine. I was bullied and harassed by the same woman I believe was key in hiring me. It started to escalate oce I was doing exceptionally well, and her Boss and the internal mgmt team were aware of it. Unfortunately for me, I was on contract, about to become permanent based on my performance. But she stooped a slow as fabricating lies (which she couldn’t substantiate) and then changing my job description without telling me. Interestingly, this Manager has a high turnover rate in the concerns she manages (5 out of 7 people left in a span of 14 months- all of them were the stronger performers, most amicable and fairest team players- these are well-paying jobs too). I did try to seek HR support, but HR was useless, although at first they said they could arrange a transfer. I was compelled to leave- but I believe it is affecting my ability to get a job now.

        It is good to hear that HR actually helped you.


    2. Pat, thanks so much for your example story. It’s so rich in helping illumine the issues.

      it is unfortunate that in some situations, someone who helps you and perhaps helps themselves or their organization) by helping you can later turn on you. Why is it that the altruism that once was, evaporates?

      When a former supervisor/boss/ client/colleague supporter can becomes a harasser or bully, as I’ll bet you know, “It’s not about you,” type of projection and insecurity” takes over. Connectedness to loved ones sure does help make it through such tough situations.

      In my situation, 6-7 HR related administrators were involved. Can you imagine the productivity and learning losses because of one determined bully?!

      Thank goodness good friends and family, including ourselves as our own friends (believing in ourselves) which make all the difference.

      ~ Deb


      1. Deb, I loved reading your article, and I am becoming more immersed in these kinds of issues. It started with an interest in sexism/inequality within the workplace, but I found there is a two-tier aspect to this. Not just sexism and bullying from male counterparts, but more often than not – the additional issue which you highlight here.
        I have had two female bosses in my working career, and both were bullies, and incredibly controlling.
        The first owned a small pr agency and she was very much from the Cruella school of charm- shouting and belittling, and even expected me to lie to keep my job. So I quit. She then went as so far as contacting my subsequent employer – undermining me and belittling my ability in order for them to reconsider the job offer. Fortunately they had been one of my clients and so they saw through the attempted sabotage. Next came my more recent boss. She joined the company I worked for, and immediately asked me to change my job title (as she felt it was too similar to hers, which she had self-prescribed!) After some time, she would attempt to chip away at my, and manipulate clients and editors. Again, they saw through this, (and in many cases I ignored it); my confidence had grown, so I just let her dig her own hole. She ended up being made redundant. She went so far as to tell me about jobs in other companies which I should apply for – I knew this was another tactic to get me to leave, perhaps because she felt threatened in some way.
        I actually believe that these behaviours stem from a deep-rooted insecurity, common in bullying behaviour. The antidote I guess is to instill confidence in female employees, and use reverse coaching methods for women in management positions, to ensure that they see what behaviours are not acceptable or conducive to good work ethics. So that’s what I’m starting to look into! I really loved reading your article. It resonated completely. Thank you!
        Best wishes


        1. Becky, if I can help one person with my blog posts, I consider that well worth the time it takes to write them. I’m delighted it resonated and helped! I am hopeful that your comments and experiences will help others who are suffering from ongoing bullying and “mean girls” behavior that goes beyond isolated aggression to ongoing targeting, as you describe.

          Kudos to you for also describing the belief you have in yourself. You seem to have succeeded in creating the boundaries so essential to minimize the impact of toxic, ongoing bully behavior that can be so harmful to health and spirit. Feel free to let us know how the learning continues in having a healthy response to workplace bullying and bullying in life.

          Warmest regards, ~ Deb


    3. “Queen Bee” originated at the University of Michigan? When I was in elementary school in Texas in the early ’70s, complaining about one of my classmates one day, my mom surmised that the girl must be a queen bee. I had never heard the term before and it made an impression. This was, at the latest, 1973, before academics “coined” the phrase in Psychology Today.

      My mom was a very intelligent woman and homemaker who, I’m fairly certain, wasn’t reading academic research from the University of Michigan. I suspect the researchers picked up on a term already in use in the wild, coined at the University of Mom.


      1. Interesting to hear of the term used earlier. And likely, if your mom used it, it was in use earlier, perhaps in the 50s or 60s. I stand corrected and will add a note to the post soon.


    4. I experienced bullying from a queen bee within a religious organization. She and I were co-chairs of a book club and she has behaved inappropriately towards me ever since we met. Of course this is not the same thing as a work situation and I dropped out of the group. However, when I see her occasionally she does not even utter the usual social niceties. She has been honored by this organization many times for the hard work she has done. However, IMO her egregious behavior negates ALL of it!!


      1. Hi Nancy, and thanks for your comment. I’m sorry to hear of your situation, though it is good you were able to make choices to exit the environment where this toxic behavior occured. I hope there will be much more positive and welcoming relationships to be built into the next place you land to share your skills and expertise.


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