Disrespect and Humility

When I told some of my former colleagues, the EAs I worked with during my career at Harvard, that I intended to write in my blog about Executive Assistants and respect, a couple of them told me stories.

Each said that they have a very respectful partnership with their executives, but that gaining the respect of others in the organization, particularly those who report directly to their executive, is frequently difficult, at times frustrating and, in some cases, a failure.

I’ve thought about this phenomenon and admit that I don’t fully understand it since I haven’t been in the shoes of those who do not respect their bosses’ assistants.  Trying to put myself in the shoes of such direct-reports, I imagine that they see the EAs as barriers between them and their bosses. The EA is the hindrance that prevents direct access when they want unfettered entry to the executive’s space, time and hearing.  They bristle at a “go-between” passing messages. She might get it wrong. They are sure that she can’t possibly understand the urgency or full context of their need. They want her out of the way so they can get their need met instantaneously.  Or, they haven’t gotten what they needed in the past, and they suspect it is the EA’s fault. Certainly, their boss would not deny their request. If it is known that the assistant reads her boss’ email, they may feel deprived of the privacy and intimacy they imagine would exist if she were not always listening in.

Do you notice that my tone in the above paragraph belies my own lack of understanding of the direct-reports’ perspective? I’m having difficulty getting into their shoes. That, by the way, is the cause of disrespect in many if not all situations – the unwillingness or inability to see what is going on from the other person’s point of view.

The truth is, in many cases, the executive has asked her EA to be a doorkeeper in general, and in particular, for certain individuals.  This responsibility puts the EA in an awkward position because the boss wants her to do so without the slightest hint that she, the executive, is behind the practice.  The EA must take the flack and the disrespect with equanimity.

Other situations where the EA is frequently disrespected include relationships with EAs of executives further up in the hierarchy.  Make no mistake, there is a pecking order.  “My boss is more important than your boss, so I don’t have to be polite to you, I can demand whatever I need,” may be the attitude of EAs at the top level. Perhaps they don’t express such blatant contempt, but, rather, a subtle lack of respect.  Wise assistants at any level will work hard to build respectful relationships with her peers and those up and down the line.  They know it’s the best way to accomplish what they should all want to achieve – smooth and efficient interactions in the interest of their bosses’ success.  More crudely expressed it’s, “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours,” with a modicum of grace and humor added to the mix.

What about the individuals in the organization who exhibit poor interpersonal skills (including lack of respect) with everyone? In those instances, the EA may become the tutor and mentor, encouraging a more respectful, softer touch in the interest of the other’s career, and for the benefit of the organization.  Since the assistant is on the front lines, she may be the brunt of much rudeness and learn not to take it personally. She will try to turn the situation around so she can advise on the best way to accomplish a task without ruffling feathers. But she is not a doormat.  She will not allow rude behavior to become the norm for interactions with other staff.   She is called upon to model and describe the acceptable and effective behavior that will help others to accomplish their goals.

EAs often experience a sort of generalized disrespect because some of them don’t have college or higher degrees. They are viewed as “a dime a dozen” and easily replaceable.  Or, they are considered unambitious because they have not focused on upward mobility.  They love their work and are happy to make a career of being an Executive Assistant.  Those who want to play that role impeccably are avid about professional development and continuous learning, but they do not want to go back to school to get a Ph.D.  They are always honing their technical and interpersonal skills and are enthusiastic about taking on new challenges. The EA’s best tools for countering the “dime a dozen” mentality are self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and self-respect – realistic humility.

I don’t mean to paint all EAs as exemplary and all those who do not respect them as unfair and self-interested.  Of course, there are situations in which esteem is not earned or deserved. In those instances, the respectful course of action would be to speak directly to the EA concerned about the problems experienced.  If he or she is humble and open to constructive criticism the relationship and situation may easily be mended.  If improvement does not occur then discussing the issues with the assistant’s boss is both appropriate and respectful.

Good EA’s are the oil that lubricates the whole organization, and the best ones both know it and are known for it!