Sometimes an act of respect simply happens, without either party involved noticing or consciously identifying it as such at the time, though usually one, or both, come away feeling good about the interaction.
During my work life as an executive assistant at Radcliffe College and Harvard University, I served a total of six deans, a president, and a vice president. I plan to write more about executive assistants and respect in future posts, but the incident I’m describing today occurred toward the end of my career and happened at the school of engineering.
The workday of an executive assistant is full of a long string of interruptions; sometimes the interruptions are themselves interrupted. Priority projects are extremely difficult to complete. Anything that needs focus, concentration, and quiet must usually be done before or after work hours, when co-workers and bosses are not in the office. I and my fellow EAs at the school of engineering, as we were wont to call ourselves, came up with a tentative plan to claim some “quiet time” for ourselves during the workday by closing our doors from time to time so that we could concentrate on tasks that needed, well, concentration.
At the suggestion of another EA that we ask our bosses if this plan were acceptable to them, I looked for an appropriate time to speak with the dean I was then supporting, who happened to be new in his role. From my perspective, the conversation did not go well. He seemed, shall I say, resistant to the idea. Up until then, he been very understanding and supportive of my work needs, so I was disappointed and a bit surprised by his reaction. I felt deflated by the end of the conversation, and he seemed annoyed.
I was in the EA business for a long time and considered myself very adaptable, resourceful and tough. I tried to start each new day fresh and cheerful, so when the dean came into the office the next day, we exchanged a “good morning” and asked each other how we were. I said my usual, “Fine.” A few moments later he returned to my desk and said, “Tell me more about your need for quiet time.” My heart smiled. I thanked him for asking and described how difficult it was to get things done with many interruptions, however legitimate they might be. He described his feeling that it was important for the dean’s office, and the dean, to have an “open door policy” and to be available throughout business hours to faculty, students and anyone who might need us. I expressed my understanding and agreement and explained that I thought simply closing the door part way might encourage those who were headed toward the office to think again about the importance of their errand and whether it might wait until another time. We didn’t “settle” on a policy, but by the end of the conversation, we better understood each other. I respected him even more than I had previously, especially for his courage, sensitivity, and generosity in continuing a conversation that had gone badly the previous day. I felt heard, and because I felt heard, I felt respected.