How Office “Cliques” can Stir up Toxic Culture: Lessons learned from the movie “Mean Girls”

Emily E Coleman
Mar 22 · 8 min read

Office life shouldn’t feel like being in high school. 5 tools to navigate office drama and group think, brought to you by Regina George.

CREDIT: Paramount Pictures

Preface: if you have not watched the movie “Mean Girls” — first off…GET WITH THE TIMES. But more importantly, you may need to do this before reading this post. And, you know, so you can catch up with pop culture.

“Mean Girls”. We’ve all seen the movie. The haves and have nots. You’re in or you’re out.

As over the top as that movie was, the reason it resonated so well with viewers was due to its relatability. And although when it was released I was in high school and was able to directly relate the storyline to my current life status, the amount of adults I knew that loved that movie seemed alarming and strange.

Now I’m an adult. I’ve worked for multiple companies. I’ve experienced the continued “clique” mentality that forms within office environments and it’s glaringly clear why the connection of that movie crossed consciousness across multiple generations.

Life is hard enough as an adult (bills, family, kids, breakups, insecurities, etc). When you have that moment when you realize that even in the most welcoming of office cultures that you will still have to deal with navigating which “group” will accept you, it kind makes you want to go postal.

As someone who has been in leadership positions, watching this breakdown permeate within office culture (especially when it effects your own employees) is painful, to say the least. And for me, also very personal.

I’m going to get back into the lesson learned from “Mean Girls” but first, let’s take a walk down Memory lane.

Let’s do a little time warp back to little Emily’s school days to get a better glimpse into why the sent of “clique” gang mentality makes me see red.

As a young child I was, as many children are, chubby and awkward. Shy and misfit. I spent my weekends with my best friend Ginny exploring in the woods, playing video games (can I get a few claps for “Oregon Trail”!), and hiding out in the library reading books. That was me. And from what I could tell at the time, there was no way around that.

My sister, brother and me after a dance recital. So yeah, childhood had its brutal moments

And so I was teased. I was told I was fat. Called four-eyes because of my glasses. And although a part of me yearned to be one of the popular girls, I was content enough with trucking along as “the good lord had made me” (I grew up in the Bible Belt, so that’s the explanation for everything).

Over one summer in middle school I – as they say – blossomed. I had a growth spurt, lost all of my baby weight, stopped wearing glasses – basically the scene from “She’s All That” when Laney Boggs descends the stairwell to meet Freddy Prince to go to the dance. Complete transformation. 🦋

When I returned to school after summer break, all of the sudden I existed. The positive attention was jarring but welcomed after an entire life of insecurity. The popular girls welcomed me into their tribe. And for a brief period of time, I felt I had finally “made it” easily forgiving the fact that just a short time before those same people treated me like garbage.

For a short period of time it felt great. It seemed so much easier to navigate the world from that vantage point. I could finally breath – until I couldn’t. Until I realized that maintaining my status would cause me to constantly feel the need to keep up, be perfect, and most agonizingly, watch and (sometimes) be apart of teasing others.

As quickly as I had taken in my new world, I vehemently rejected it. I hated the way they treated people outside the clique. Nice to your face, gossipy and ruthless behind your back. And so I rebelled. I started to defend the people they maligned and decided to peal away from the toxic environment that swarmed around them.

Going through that period of time was really important for my growth as a human and with the exception of a very small four month stint in college as a Tri-Delta (it’s a long story)ΔΔΔ, I have pushed away from inserting myself directly in the middle of toxic group culture. I find myself seeking the people who feel left out and trying to make a path for inclusion because it pains me so much to see those purposely being left out. And I have to say, watching that dynamic in office settings makes my blood boil.

Being Mean Gets You Nowhere (duh)

So enough about me (but now you know my motivations) let’s get back on track. Mean Girls. And office cliques. You with me? Let’s go.

  • It’s not just the girls, you guys do it, too: The entire movie is littered with every clique causing chaos, even Cady Heron’s (Lindsay Lohan) original friend group starts acting a fool. It’s human nature. We are not perfect. We are all insecure in some way. We naturally form our tribes, so I want to be clear, there are both Mean Girls and Mean Guys. This is a gender-neutral issue.
  • Creating a horrible game of gossipy telephone isn’t cute: You know when the “Burn book” is distributed around the school and crazy rumors about everyone are flying around and Cady’s friends Janis and Damien find out she made a bunch of crap up about them and the entire school thinks it’s true? Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. We’ve all been there. You hear drama that involves you that was completely taken out of context, and in some case, is so far from reality that you are left speechless. Think before you incorrectly relay messages…people work hard to build respect and relationships with their co-workers. Your one mis-reported message to a group could destroy someone’s reputation in the blink of an eye. Just go to the source for clarity.
  • Just because they compliment your clothes, does not always mean they actually like them: Regina George (Rachel McAdams), leader of “The Plastics”. You know how she always compliments people on their outfits only to turn right back around and be a bitch about it? The same thing happens in the workplace and it’s stupid. There are people out there that will tell you you are killing it when they know they could help you get better or improve, only to ensure they still maintain their top status. Luckily, they typically are not the most genuine people so you can see through it, but it’s there. And that’s frustrating, especially if you are typically a teacher personality. Find comfort in knowing this passive aggression is actually a sign of their own insecurities and the threat they feel you are to them. You are killing it, find the people that will Be honest and help you, and don’t forget to pay it forward. I love those shoes, girl. And I mean it!
  • Sometimes fitting in will not make you happy, and that’s okay: Throughout the entire movie, Regina has very strict rules to how her clique must act in order to be part of the group. That’s just a bunch of BS, folks. The thing is, people with different viewpoints and backgrounds within a company can be critical to creating the best offering or services. If everyone thinks the same way and has the same vision, it’s really hard to create something that can reach the full potential of your customer segments. So next time your opinion or outlook seems to alienate you, you just tell those robotic lambs to shove it (but do this by presenting your case with data and reason, of course).
  • Being up-ity, smug, and gossipy never won anyone friends/or allowed them to keep their jobs: Just look at Regina at the end of the movie. I mean, she created so many enemies that she ended up alone, stuck in a hospital bed in a full body cast. Don’t let yourself get hit by a bus, people. Just be kind and genuine. And I know what some of you in leadership positions are thinking, “If I’m too friendly or kind, people won’t listen to me and will walk all over me.” That’s not true. There is a good balance between having good emotional intelligence and being a boss. Also note, when your boss sees you be less than your best self, it just comes off as you being insecure. Be kind and genuine. Period.
  • LadySmith Black Mambazo really is an amazing band: Okay, this has nothing to do with the above but I’ve seen them twice and they are as good as Cady’s mom says they are. Get cultured, people!

As the balance in the world goes, with the negative group dynamics also comes the positive.

At the end of “Mean Girls” Cady realizes that being popular is only a misguided social construct and that living that life actually made her miserable and cut her off from the people that actually cared about her. She changes back to her original self and the movie ends with her loving and being loved and karma has delivered appropriate actions to each character. Rainbows and Butterflies. Magical endings. 🌈🦋🧙‍♀️

I like to imagine that in reality Cady continues to have run ins with the mean girls, not just in school, but for the rest of her life. She learns how to navigate the interactions with grace (and maybe some therapy). But in general, she has been able to let the people who care about her back in and knows when she needs support, her loving tribe is there to help her.

That’s the other part of the workplace co-worker dynamics. In the right environment you still have people you can rely on and gain support from when you need feedback or a pep talk and that’s the best sign of a healthy work family.

So that’s the gist of what I’ve learned on how to navigate the social tundra of the workplace drama. And I’m not perfect, I partake in these things as well. But I do continually strive to not become Regina George, and to always steer toward my inner Cady Heron.

Don’t be Regina George. Come on, people.

Emily E Coleman

Written by

Former Chief Marketing Officer at ShapeShift. Food lover, music lover, travel lover, outdoor lover, ice cream lover ❤️Just loving all the things.

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