Stop Being a Dick -- It Costs Your Employer Millions (a.k.a., "How to Speak to Your Assistant -- 101")

Angry businessman with document shouting at somebody
Angry businessman with document shouting at somebody

Earlier this month, I published the article, "The Epidemic that's Costing American Employers Billions," about the scourge of Accidental Managers in the workplace and the ridiculously high (and unnecessary) expense of employee unhappiness. In the small deluge of email, direct messages and comments that followed, it became clear just how prevalent this problem is, with most people grateful to discover that they are not alone in their misery, and happy to finally have a term to describe what so many experience daily -- a manager who was put in charge of other people without one whiff of managerial skills or training.

The other constant that emerged from the notes and comments was that managers at all levels are desperate for this type of training. Desperate. Employers - take heed.

In the article, I mentioned spending an hour covering "How to Speak to Your Assistant," while teaching at Berkeley Law, and I've heard from so many attorneys at both large and small firms and managers asking me to send them the notes from this class. That request came second only to the wave of managers who wanted more guidance on how to deal with toxic people in their workplaces. Rather than answer each individually, and now seeing what a need there is for this type of information, I'm turning the first post into a trilogy, making this Part Two: "How to Speak to Your Assistant -- 101," and next week, I will publish, "How to Spot, Stop & Protect Your Workforce from Toxic Employees."

Looking forward to your continued comments, shares and topic requests.

"How to Speak to Your Assistant -- 101"

I practiced law at Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison LLP, which (many years after my departure), had one of the more infamous implosions of any major firm. My best phrase to describe Brobeck from my time there was always: "No one's minding the store." There was no oversight. Departments, and in many cases, individual partners, operated as independent fiefdoms. In 1997, due to an ugly partner war for control of our group, several associates quit and one was fired in a period of two months.

During the time we were hemorrhaging attorneys, I got permission - and budget - from our managing partner to do a little morale boosting. My assistant, John, and I designed long-sleeved tee-shirts in the firm's colors, with our logo and practice group name, and ordered one for everyone in the group. No one else knew we were doing this.

I still vividly remember the day they arrived. Since John had worked so hard on putting the whole thing together, I asked him to surprise everyone with them. The attorneys mostly had a tepid response, liking the shirts, but not really caring one way or the other. The staff, on the other hand, were so excited. Beyond excited. Their reaction was far more than anything I'd ever expected.

Claudia Waggoner, who was 62 at the time and had been a secretary at Brobeck since she was 18, walked into my office, holding her shirt and asked, "Why would you do this?" I replied, "I'm just sick of losing people I care about." She said she had to give me a hug, so I got up and accepted her warm embrace, but it felt like too much credit for just ordering cute shirts, so I tried to play down the importance of the whole thing.

"You don't understand," she said, gripping my shoulders with tears in her eyes. "No one ever thinks of us as part of the team."

After 44 years at the same firm, this skilled, competent, intelligent, loyal woman was tearfully thanking a 28-year-old who had been there less than two, just for being acknowledged as part of the team. That is a lesson I will never forget.

RULE #1: Everyone - EVERYONE - who works for you is part of a team. Act like it.

There's a story about John F. Kennedy touring NASA and running across a grizzled old janitor mopping the floor. The President introduced himself and asked the man, "What do you do here?" and the man replied, "I'm here to put a man on the moon."

The single most important factor in anyone's satisfaction from, engagement in, and enjoyment of their job is getting a sense of accomplishment from doing it. This is according to every major research report on the topic, including Gallup, U.C. Riverside and Harvard Business School. You're smart enough to find a way to give that to your assistant for each task (unless the task has no purpose, in which case, why are you asking someone to do it?)

As you're handing work over to a person whose sole function is to support you, give directions that are inclusive of the importance of that person's work to the outcome.

Instead of: "I need you to type this motion."
Try: "Please type this motion, which is going to get the judge to throw out the other side's ridiculous evidence."

Instead of: "Get me a flight and hotel for Detroit next week."
Try: "Please book my travel to secure our next round of financing and keep this company growing."

Instead of: "Can you get our speaker the damn deposit check she keeps asking about?"
Try: "We have an amazing speaker coming in next month to motivate everyone here to be happier, so I need to make sure she gets paid. Please take care of that."
(okay, that one is a bit self-serving, but it makes the point...)

It's fine to repeat the same thing every time, as long as you imbue the work with a sense of purpose. Which would you respond better to: "Here are my billing sheets," or, "Please enter these into the billing system so that our clients can pay us and no one's check bounces next month?" One makes the task important and lets the person doing it know that their work matters. There's no downside to that. Yes -- it takes longer to say it, but that's easily and quickly made up for with greater productivity and less down-time as a result of an unmotivated staff.

RULE #2: Acknowledge in Public, Admonish in Private

Does your company, department, research facility or law firm have a monthly or quarterly newsletter? (And if you don't, you should - it's a great, easy way to inform, acknowledge and appreciate.) Does it include news of your big wins from the past quarter? Does it name the people who worked on those matters? And now...drum roll please...are all of the support staff who worked on those matters included?

When someone in your organization has a win, chances are, others contributed to it, so find a way to spotlight the quarterback, but don't ignore the linebackers that got her to the goal line.

This is not rocket science, and yet I have never - NEVER EVER EVER - seen a law firm include the names of the assistants in a newsletter reporting on a big case or major transaction that the firm is touting. I once had an office manager say to me, "We don't have space for that." Their newsletter was online. Only online. You don't have space for that? Shout-outs cost you nothing. Give them.

The flip side of acknowledging employees for great work is when you have to correct someone's poor performance. Nobody likes negative feedback. Do everything in your power to focus on the behavior that needs correcting and allow everyone involved to maintain their dignity. This always should be done behind a closed door, with only the people who are absolutely required to be in the room, and never discussed with any other employees unless they are directly involved in the matter, and even then, they should be told as little as possible. Since many workplaces have specific disciplinary policies (one of the few things managers actually get trained for), I'll leave it at that, and add one important example of not criticizing publicly:

I was doing a training session with both management and staff in the same room and when I got to this point, one manager said, "Yeah, that's not a problem here." The looks on the employees' faces indicated differently, so we all agreed it was a safe space to be candid, and it came out that this particular manager had a favorite phrase, which was, "What are you doing?" If you read that with a warm, friendly, supportive tone of voice, I can assure you, that's not what was being delivered. In an open workspace, she frequently came up behind someone, looked over their shoulder for a few moments, then asked, "What are you doing?" It was demoralizing and disengaging and to the employees, it felt like an admonishment. The manager had no idea.

Words matter. Tone matters. Place matters. Your assistant matters.
Proceed accordingly.

RULE #3: Don't Change the Goal Line

One of the biggest complaints workers in all industries, at all levels have is when a boss says, "Do A, B and C," and the worker finishes A and is halfway through B and the boss comes over and says, "Hey, go do X, Y and Z!" As a leader, you might think nothing of this. You told your assistant to coordinate all of last month's invoices by dollar value (a low priority task), but a customer just called because his order never arrived and you need to find it immediately, so you tell your assistant to trace the order. Problem solving! That's what you do, right?

But your assistant is lower on the ladder than you are, and when someone is on a lower rung, they don't have the same view. The assistant does not know which of those is more important and worse, might think he was doing a bad job by not finishing the first task before being pulled off it and given the second one. And what does he do about that first task, now? Abandon it? Rush through to finish it first? Come back to it but only after the second one is completely solved?

To some extent, all workplaces are governed by the Tyranny of the Urgent. A client calling with a problem is a higher priority than reorganizing the filing system, but reorganizing the filing system also needs to get done. As the manager, your job to prioritize tasks for your workforce, and convey that priority in a way that motivates and expresses your faith in their abilities.

It takes two seconds to say, "Stop with those invoices and track this guy's order!" But again, what are you communicating? To the assistant, it feels like he's done something wrong, and there is no clear instruction. Instead, take ten seconds and say, "Thanks for working on those invoices, but we have a client whose order is missing, which is more important, and since I can trust you to handle that, please track it down right now and let me know. After that, go back to the invoices." This style of speaking is motivating. It will get you far greater results. It might prevent one or two unnecessary sick days. It might keep an employee from quitting this Friday. All of those things add up, and save your company significant amounts of cash. They also make life more pleasant for everyone.

It seems like a lot of work to have to say all that, and to remember to say it, but here's a very simple rule: lead with appreciation, followed by clear directions, then express confidence in the worker's ability to do the task.

Or as I teach live - Rock Your Crew with ACDC!™
(Appreciation, Clear Direction & Confidence)

Remember that every time, and you will always get the best out of those who report to you.

When I cover this topic in a live workshop or keynote address, it ends with a Top Ten of points that may be intuitively obvious, but still good to be reminded of, so I will wrap up by including them here, without further extrapolation:

  1. There is rarely ever a reason to raise your voice. No matter the situation, you are more effective when you are calm, clear and direct.
  2. Your bad day does not need to become anyone else's bad day. Your assistant is a human being who also has bad days. Allow for this and work around it now and then (as long as it's not too often and does not interfere with your ability to do your job).
  3. Don't impose time assumptions on work you don't do personally. Almost nothing done well "takes five minutes," so stop saying that it does.
  4. If someone else is being rude, obnoxious or mean to your assistant, aggressively leap to their defense. They might not be in a position to speak up, but you are. Loyalty flows both ways.
  5. Never complain to the people below you about your job. Complaints flow up and laterally. Never down.
  6. "Thank you" goes a long way.
  7. Your assistant is not your BFF and does not need to hear about your drunken weekend in Vegas, your sister's cheating husband or the weird rash on the back of your thigh. Boundaries build respect.
  8. Never badmouth your assistant to other people, in or out of your workplace. If you have a problem, work to fix it with those parties who are directly involved.
  9. To the best of their abilities, people give you what you expect of them. Expect success and you will eventually get success, and a whole lot more effort along the way.
  10. Be nice. Always. It just makes life easier.
Would love your thoughts, especially if you are an assistant and want to share what works and what doesn't for you. Watch this space next week for the third part of the trilogy -- "How to Spot, Stop & Protect Your Workforce from Toxic Employees."

Until then, work happy. It's worth millions.

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This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Valerie Alexander is a keynote speaker and corporate trainer, and a former securities lawyer, investment banker and Internet executive. She now works with companies and organizations seeking to retain their top talent by making happiness in the workplace a priority and ensuring that female professionals are recognized and rewarded for their work. Her many books on Happiness, Success, and Success for Women can be found on Amazon.com, and she can be reached directly through her website, SpeakHappiness.com.