The Buzz About Queen Bee Syndrome—Fair or Foul?

Women bosses: That’s what this is about. It’s a label for certain powerful business women focused on success. 

So what’s with this label—Queen Bee Syndrome? 

A syndrome by definition is: 

  • “a group of symptoms that collectively indicate or characterize a disease, psychological disorder, or other abnormal condition;
  • a complex of symptoms indicating the existence of an undesirable condition or quality;
  • a distinctive or characteristic pattern of behavior” (The American Heritage Dictionary, fourth edition) 

Who wants to be considered diseased or undesirable? Not me! 

So, what’s the issue? 

Life in the business world is not as primeval as a bee hive, although the buzz can get vigorous. Our roles, relationships, and aspirations keep shifting unlike the structured patterns of the hive. 

Our work lives are impacted by women or men bosses we often get by the luck of the draw. We expect men to be strong and directive, competitive and aggressive. But, when they are, we don’t say they have King of the Lion Pride Syndrome. 

Our challenge in the workplace is learning how to adapt to the different leadership styles and goals of the women and men around us. 

Fair or foul?

Dr. Robi Ludwig, psychotherapist and TODAY contributor, wrote this recently about some unspecified studies/surveys:

“Three quarters of men said they would much rather work for a man than a woman. A quarter of woman polled found their female bosses to be backstabbing and to have poor personal boundaries when it came to sharing their personal lives at the office. Another study found that female bosses were easily threatened, emotionally unpredictable or irritable.”

Are these findings (such as they are) enough to support a syndrome? Not surprisingly, 75% of men would prefer to work with men. I assume that’s because there would be a natural comfort level. But 25% preferred working for women.

75% of women polled did NOT find their female bosses to have those negative traits. Is that data enough to debunk the syndrome?

Although she did not coin the term, Ludwig goes on to write:

“The Queen Bee boss is the alpha female who tries to preserve her power at all costs. Instead of promoting her younger counterparts, she feels threatened by them, judges them, talks about them and, in many cases, ends up obstructing their attempts to climb the corporate ladder.”

It may surprise you that nature’s Queen bee does NOT directly control the hive. Her sole function is to reproduce. To fulfill that role, she relies on worker bees to meet her needs for food and waste removal. The hive operates as a team where roles and goals are clear. So somehow the Queen Bee label for business women doesn’t really work.

The flipside

I was one of these powerful women bosses before there were many in the corporate world. As a senior manager for over 20 years in a Fortune 500, I worked daily with the highest levels of leadership across all functions of a male-dominated energy corporation.

Here’s what I saw: Certain men aspiring to power positions who: 

  • sidelined younger counterparts they felt competitive with
  • obstructed and/or delayed growth opportunities for them
  • gossiped about them (yes, gossip among the men was alive and well)
  • jockeyed to make sure those counterparts wouldn’t get in their way

Those aspiring men looked for every opportunity to align with the right people to enhance their own brands and minimize others’. Their behaviors were never considered a syndrome.

The labeling trap

Individual labels that get attached to us are unavoidable in business and in life. Some are valid and others not. Managing that is the challenge we all share.

Labels like Queen Bee Syndrome can become barriers to working together effectively, learning how to overcome obstacles, and adapting to style differences. To me labels nearly always get in the way.

How valid or invalid is the Queen Bee Syndrome label to you, considering your experiences? Time to weigh in.

Photo from zhezhe2010 via Flickr

When Leadership Goes Bad, The Reasons Run Deep!

It’s no picnic running things, especially when dysfunction runs rampant or performance is tanking. All too often, we get promoted to leadership positions when things are in disarray. 

The lure, of course, is our chance to be heroic, a miracle worker, a superstar! So we say, “Yes, I relish the challenge.” They say, “Great! Good luck,” something we’ll desperately need. 

Classic mistakes 

As soon as we get tapped as the “leader,” we want to get into it. Bring on the challenges: 

  • Take on the budget
  • Get programs implemented
  • Develop new initiatives
  • Rally the employees
  • Resolve old issues 

In time, we may sense that things are going but not all that well. There’s edginess in the air, push-back by some employees, intermittent complaining, and a lack of enthusiasm. 

Surprisingly, your staff starts branding you with labels like: 

  • Impatient and driven
  • Insensitive and uncaring
  • Blunt and disrespectful
  • Arrogant and self-centered
  • A poor listener and distant 

Smart leaders know that the focus of their jobs is not the work per se: It’s on the people doing it—their employees. 

The right fixes 

Demoralized, angry, and unhappy employees become the ruin of any leader. It may take a while, but it gets you in the end. 

When leaders realize or are told that the problems they have inherited are not being resolved, two erroneous conclusions are often drawn: 

  • “It must be my personality or the way I’m coming across.”
  • “I just need to give my employees more pep talks or maybe a team- building program to get us on the same page.” 

Systemic problems require systemic solutions. Smart leaders, facing difficulties, don’t ask, “What’s wrong with me?” Instead they ask, “What’s wrong here?” 

Employees rally around a leader who shows them how they can make a difference. They thrive on structure, role clarity, performance expectations, and feedback. 

If you want to turn dysfunction into employee engagement, here are the essentials: 

  • A current state of the department presentation by the leader
  • A goals grid, specifying the specific financial, operations, stakeholder, and employee goals for the current year
  • Updated position descriptions that identify job scope, accountabilities, responsibilities/duties, and qualifications
  • Specific performance goals for each employee, cascading from the department goals
  • Quarterly reports of department performance against goals 

These tools let employees know the priorities are that you, the leader, are committed to. This is how they know what counts and what doesn’t. 

I worked with two standout leaders who hired me because they were told that they had behavioral traits that were problematic. One was told that her communications style was too blunt: The other that he came across as being impatient. They both: 

  • Had taken over organizations that were in death spiral
  • Went hard at trying to right a sinking ship
  • Assumed that employees understood the severity of the situation and would follow their lead 

Instead, employees resisted, criticized, and became obstacles. They really didn’t understand how dire things were. They couldn’t see the big picture, blamed these leaders for problems past and present, resisted change, and created crippling organizational noise. 

The reality was that each leader was strong, smart, and committed. What they lacked was knowledge of performance best practice tools and how to implement them.  So they wisely regrouped, took stock, and put into place the structure employees needed. As a result, they each created a lasting fix.

Great results 

It’s a leader’s job to give employees the tools, support, and environment they need to do great work. Leaders can’t succeed without their employees, since leaders do very little “real” work. Instead, they provide structure, information and insights; remove obstacles; develop the employee capabilities; and generate momentum.   

It would be nice if every leader had a personality that we liked, but that isn’t necessary. No matter how business fit we are, we still need our leaders to provide the platform we need to do good work. If they haven’t, be bold and ask for it! 

What have been your experiences with a leader who ran amok? Was there ever a fix?