“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
Alice Walker (The Color Purple)
There’s good news and bad news in the workplace of 2016.
The good news is that there has never been a better time to be a personal assistant than right now. The bad news is that there is still entirely too much fear in our workplace. Too much suffering in silence and too much leading by intimidation. At its worst, these behaviors escalate to workplace bullying and it is a very big problem in households and estates all over the world. And…it is the elephant in the room because of the confidential nature of private households.
This is a particularly challenging issue in private service where there can be a fine line between ‘in service‘ and ‘subservient,’ and all the behaviors that correspond. However, the silence needs to be broken about bullying because the price assistants and PSPs are paying is far too high. Workplace bullying is poisoning households from the inside out and traumatizing the targets and the witnesses. Stress related illnesses and reduced productivity are common among the targets of bullying. It is a huge time waster and is very costly in terms of replacing staff.
In my work training assistants all over the world, I see that the number one challenge assistants face is to find their voices to speak up to their principals and colleagues. A close second (in challenges, that is) is that too many assistants undervalue their worth, power, and influence. Assistants will say to me, “Bonnie, I can’t speak up. I’m afraid of losing my job.” I respond, “If you keep staying silent, I’m afraid you are going to lose you.” Emotional abuse is destructive and the damaging effects can last for years.
Here’s one big problem. Confrontation has a very bad reputation. Speaking up can be very positive and does not have to be loud or mean or ugly. If you speak your mind respectfully, directly, and with specific details, you not only will not lose your job, you will mostly likely be setting the stage for a promotion, not to mention improved self-confidence, self-esteem, self-respect and the respect of others.
The X factor here is training, or lack thereof. There is very little training offered to staff to learn how to manage difficult situations and people. Additionally and in general, principals are not trained either about how to manage a team.
What are staff staying quiet about? Lots of things…
- Voicing a concern about a difficult manager or co-worker. Shoving issues under the proverbial foyer rug is not a fix – it will come out sometime.
- Saying what we need to do our work better
- Expressing a differing opinion
- Negotiating salary during the interview process (Only 7% of women will negotiate)
- Asking for a raise and/or promotion
- Excessive workload (50+ hours/week)
- Confronting a bully
- Reporting the toxic behaviors of bullies
- Discussing a brewing problem
- Talking about the need for training
- Justifying a promotion
- Asking for time off
“I’m so sorry. I had no idea.” Angela’s principal of 3 years was moody and often abusive. He yelled, used profanity, and publicly humiliated Angela and other staff. He ruled with fear and intimidation and most staffers were frightened to say a word. The stress level was off the charts because it was getting worse and no one understood why.
One day the principal pushed Angela too far and she snapped. She followed him into his office and closed the door. She told him firmly but calmly that the disrespect was intolerable and that he was chasing good people away. Angela gave him specific examples of what he said and did that was offensive and that it needed to stop “right now.” Angela turned around, left the room, and went back to her desk. She was shaking but had zero regrets for speaking her mind.
In a few minutes, he came out of his office with tears in his eyes and said, “I am so sorry. You are absolutely right. I had no idea my behavior was so bad. It won’t happen again.” It didn’t. The principal apologized to the rest of the team. He explained some personal issues that were triggering the behaviors but said “that was no excuse to treat people badly.” The kicker? Angela has now been with her principal for 26+ years and is now free to speak her mind with her principal when she feels the need.
I have heard stories similar to Angela’s many times. Some assistants find it difficult to believe that a bully can actually be unaware of the impact of these negative behaviors but it is true. Standing up and speaking out directly and in detail is a strategy that is effective and reduces tremendous angst in the office. It breaks the cycle and once it is broken, things can change. Will the changes be 100%? Like life, that answer is ‘no.’
The best resource book I know about workplace bullying is “Taming the Abrasive Manager” by Dr. Laura Crawshaw who says that the key to stopping it is awareness. Dr. Crawshaw says that it is very common for bullies to be “oblivious” and “clueless” to the destructive impact of their behavior. If that is true, then the only way to raise awareness is for assistants and all targets of bullying to speak up. Don’t wait one minute longer to find your voice and speak up.
How Do You Speak Up? Here’s the 6-Step Plan.
- Practice saying the words out loud. The more you say them out loud, the easier it will be to say them. Many assistants will say that they don’t speak up because they will cry and/or get emotional. Practicing saying the words will minimize the chance of crying. The main problem with overt emotion and tears is that they diminish your message.
- Pick your “battle” and choose your moment. Ask for time alone with the person. No public humiliation. What you need to say is between the two of you. There is great power in speaking to the elephants in the room by asking the questions, “Can we talk?” or “I have something important on my mind. Can we sit down for 10 minutes?”
- Stay calm, clear, and direct. Look the person in the eye. Be specific and factual in your examples. Say, “It made me feel X when Y happened yesterday and Z happened last week.” Another great resource book is “Speaking Your Mind in 101 Difficult Situations” by Don Gabor.
- Allow the other person to save face. Say, “I know that you might not know how this impacted me so I felt it was important for me to tell you.” Speak only for yourself and not for others.
- Prepare something in writing to clarify what you are saying. Putting these ideas on paper communicates the seriousness of the issues as a door-opener to the conversation.
- Stop Talking. Once you speak your mind, be quiet and wait. Tolerate the awkward silence until the response comes. Even if the person does not come around all the way, your relationship is forever changed. You are now known as a person who will not stay quiet when there is a problem and that is a very good thing.
Awesome things happen when you find your voice to speak up about the things that matter. Most of all, you matter. Every person, including everyone in private service, is deserving of respectful and professional treatment. Workplace bullying is not justified under any circumstances. I am rooting you on to not allow fear to stop you from saying the things that need to be said to your principal, fellow staff, and the people in your life.
Pledge to Speak Up! An international initiative, the Speak Up! Pledge provides the language to help improve the communication between assistants and principals. If you believe in speaking up for what you want or whatever you want to see changed in the workplace, sign the pledge: SpeakUpPledge.com and please share with others.