When I was in my late 20s, I had the good fortune to be mentored by a 66-year-old veteran executive who taught me a ton about people and helped me frame the cultural philosophy I have used over my 15-year leadership career. He had the gift of making everyone he talked to feel like they were the most important person in the room, and when he spoke, his words and tone were always a balanced combination of authority and kindness. Over the years that I worked with him, I never once saw him treat anyone disrespectfully, even when he was dealing with individuals who were behaving in less than appropriate ways.

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I remember one circumstance when we were working on a regulatory issue with a local government office and the administrative assistant to the department chief treated my friend with a measure of disrespect and condescension normally reserved for truck stops and logging camps. To say that she was abrasive would have been an understatement, and I watched in awe as he dealt with her calmly and graciously. When we left the building, I mentioned the incident and commented on the restraint he demonstrated while dealing with the horrible clerk. I will never forget his response. He said to me, “Michael, whatever you do in your career, always avoid ticking off the $12.00 per hour bureaucrat.” That didn’t seem to make much sense to my rookie mentality, so I asked him to expound on the statement. He went on to say that reception staff, administrative assistants, clerks, and office managers wield significant power and influence. While their surface attitudes can make us grumpy and annoyed, the consequences of treating them poorly can be devastating to our own operations and personal productivity.

Hotel reception with bell

Image credit: Dmitry Kalinovsky ©

Here are a couple of things to consider:

1. They don't care about your schedule, but they can destroy it.

These individuals can obliterate your schedule and productivity. Whether you are waiting to see their boss or attempting to get their stamp on your form, regardless of your title or salary, these individuals can make you wait as long as they want to. Consider what you experience whenever you visit the Department of Motor Vehicles; do the clerks look concerned about the fact that you are attempting to get your license renewed over your lunch hour or if you are in the right line? The very definition of “bureaucrat” is a person involved with running a government or large company who does everything according to the rules, even at the expense of other people’s needs. Those “unimportant needs” include your schedule and productivity. The DMV’s apathy is legendary, and they could care less whether or not you make your 2 PM meeting.

2. Their opinions are highly valued by their boss.

In most corporate and governmental settings, the individuals in charge are generally closer to their administrative assistants and clerks than they are their colleagues and department directors. The reason for this is simple: they generally spend a lot of time with their support staff and learn to trust them completely with managing things like their calendar, travel plans, email, etc. Because of that relationship, bosses often allow the opinions of their support staff to become their own. If the assistant doesn’t like you, you won’t be getting on the boss’s calendar. I find this particularly true in hiring circumstances where even I have pressed my administrative assistant for her opinion regarding the applicant I just interviewed. You don’t irritate the neck that turns the head, and you don’t make enemies of the clerk that the CEO trusts with his or her career.

It’s human nature to fight fire with fire and lash out to those who treat us poorly. However, if our attitude is bad—even in response to someone who is initially rude—we need to understand that our behavior could, in fact, create consequences much more severe than simply ruining our day. I have personally witnessed administrative support staff delay processes on purpose and make people suffer simply because they can. They don’t have to care; their job is simply working within their processes, and that makes them the king in their own kingdom.

It is also equally important to understand that despite our largely transactional relationships with these individuals, out of authentic consideration, we don’t want to make their lives worse by being negative and abrupt on our own account. It isn’t too farfetched to assume that when these employees initially started their jobs, it was with enthusiasm and a genuine desire to serve people. However, after dealing with thousands of demanding and inconsiderate jerks who have treated them disrespectfully, promising to get them fired and never, ever saying thank you, you can’t blame them for being somewhat indifferent to you and expecting you to be like all the others. My advice is to not be like the others. Give them a smile. Thank them for their time. Give them a compliment. Shock them a bit. It costs you nothing, and you might very well get a smile back — as well as whatever it is you need from them.

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