The Problem With Politeness: Why Straight Talking as an Assistant Always Wins

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As assistants, we have a problem with politeness. The job comes with the stigma of servitude so the mannerisms associated with the role are ones of courtesy, deference, and tact but this is nothing special; politeness is expected in all areas of the workplace.

Unfortunately, some assistants fall into the trap of resorting to excessive politeness to feel comfortable around managers and team members which can lead to an undesired outcome. On a personal level, assistants who fail to stand up for themselves against nuisance bosses and wayward colleagues risk damaging their confidence as individuals who are only aware of someone through their unassertiveness will treat them as such. On a team level, by not addressing concerns with managers, assistants miss out on opportunities to develop proper relationships. Finally, the big picture: the notion that excessive politeness is a benefit to the role doesn’t acknowledge the trap of always saying yes in the workplace, it is in fact more of a hindrance when time is precious and a direct approach almost always creates a better outcome.

Excessive politeness can hamper professional development for assistants. There’s an old saying that good assistants are mind readers. In fact, it is something that comes with good communication, something that takes time and investment from both parties.

But what if the manager or team members are uninterested in making that time? “Ok, I’ll just put my head down and get on with things.” While noble, I disagree with this course of action. What are you expecting to achieve with this mindset? Someone to turn around months later and acknowledge you? Thank you for our sacrifice? I don’t wish to be a cynic, but when has that ever really happened?

Communication is a symptom of a high-functioning workplace and making the time to raise concerns and offer solutions is the key for a healthy relationship with room for growth. If we rob ourselves of these moments we are missing out on opportunities to develop and become better assistants. Avoiding conflict, being polite for the sake of it, and suffering in silence will not help you and will set wrong expectations for a role that will be carried over to those who follow you.

Stand up for yourself so that you may stand up for others.

A serious repercussion of excessive politeness is poor self-image. By failing to stand up for ourselves or challenge individuals we affect how our colleagues perceive us. Perhaps a manager, in good humour, says something that validates a notion that you are unassertive – it may sound harmless but such things sap away at our confidence.

Accepting criticism out of politeness can change your outlook for the worse and you may then seek confirmation in what you now believe. In time, this mindset can change into a self-fulfilling prophecy as these negative thoughts start to shape how you think and act. The solution to this is positive action.

Instead of accepting negative feedback from one source seek feedback from others within the business. As assistants we connect with colleagues on all levels so actively looking for feedback can give great insight on any development that may be needed. This gives you the ammunition and confidence to handle nonconstructive criticism in a positive way. If workplace support is not sufficient I recommend seeking external mentors; they can help to give perspective and remove the emotion from the problem. Connecting with networks that support your profession is also incredibly helpful, it will give you an insight to how similar problems have been tackled in the past and provide an opportunity to share and get fresh perspective from your peers.

If you wish to serve yourself and the company, excessive politeness is no means to achieve this. Good manners will always be expected in the workplace but there is little to be achieved by becoming a martyr of congeniality, instead it can alienate you from your managers and team members. Leading an assistants’ network has given me a great opportunity to observe and support assistants and managers. If I am honest, it feels very similar to couples therapy, many of the issues can be resolved or softened with an honest conversation directly addressing areas of concern. In my experience, managers don’t know what their assistants struggle with because assistants don’t address the issues at hand. We are problem-solvers but often neglect our own problems. I always ask assistants struggling with their workload if they’ve spoken with their manager. Have they addressed the issue with anyone else?

“Oh, I don’t want to trouble anyone and make a fuss.”

Advice to this is rather straightforward – make a fuss! Everyone else does and rightfully so.

If you feel that your work situation, for whatever reason, is unbearable then address it. If someone is taking advantage of you and stealing your time, speak up and challenge the situation. Being a doormat will only prevent you from doing your job to the best of your ability. That head-down-and-keep-quiet approach, ultimately, does you more harm than good.

Politeness can have a positive and negative impact for assistants. It is necessary to maintain good relationships on all levels and, to a point, it is an important soft skill for assistants to have. However, politeness becomes problematic when it affects how others perceive us. It can change perspectives and damage our reputations. It can limit out development and narrow our minds to possibilities. To excess, politeness can be a destructive behaviour, damaging both the assistant and the business.

The positive note is that with introspection, openness and honesty assistants can maintain their own standards without damaging relationships. Workplace dynamics are challenging and now when communication channels have reduced even more it is imperative we communicate with clarity and consistency.

Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing a nice thing or being a kind person.

But it is wrong to apologize for one’s existence.

Written by Kirsi Swinton, Executive Assistant at Hewlett Packard Enterprise and ambassador at The Assistant Room.

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