Emotional assistants: acquiring the latest skills

Lydia Perovic
14 August 2009

I have been failing at my job.

Lydia Perovic has written for One Hour Empire, C Magazine, N + 1 online, Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies at University of San Francisco, Social Semiotics (Swansea University, Wales), National Post, Books in Canada, Herizons, Globe and Mail Books, Xtra!, Critical Sense (Berkeley, California), and openDemocracy. She lives in TorontoI have been failing them personally: my recent bosses - all women - and their missions. My heart is not in the project, I've heard more than once. I was never really passionate about that large reception that I coordinated, I've been told. If a grand idea is offered to me, it should be grandly embraced: yes! It's brilliant, let's do it. I'll run with it: I'll put my soul into it! That's what entrepreneurial assistants do. Assistants with initiative.

If your boss shares her worry that she has nothing left to say in yet another formal address, your duty is to tell her, "I'm sure that's not true" and propose a few ways to approach the matter. "Feeling any better?" needs to be the sympathetic greeting when she returns from a day at home sick. Signs of panic call for your ability to assuage them; signs of insecurity for some very diplomatic flattery. Instances of exuberance certainly cannot be responded to with soberness or skepticism. The job of an assistant is to assist, not to question.

I am still not sure how to handle the inquiry - Have you missed me? - when she is back in the office after a few day of absence. Which is entirely my fault. There is no need to overanalyze the question as an odd mix of Scarlett O'Hara imperiousness and the emotional neediness of a teenager. My duty is to reply with the right degree of emotion, and promptly.

It was a long time ago that I first noticed the emotional requirements of my administrative jobs, ranging from the subtly hinted at and unwritten to the explicit. Years back, in my fourth month as the administrative assistant of a national association of a certain type of small business, the time came to compare the office records of our sales with the numbers in our warehouse report. There was a slight discrepancy that was nobody's doing. The end to the fiscal year was months away; such discrepancies I thought are a regular and easily adjusted occurrence; I've spent an entire slow month of August cold-calling potential association members; so I failed to see tragedy in the fact that our report of 46 remaining boxes did not match with the warehouse's 44. I did show appropriate moderate concern when conveying this piece of information to my boss, the Executive Director. This wasn't enough. After a brief speech on the importance of our association and its activities, as well as the utmost need for numerical precision, my supervisor finished with "You claim you share my concern, but I do not see at all that you really care about having these numbers match."

Feeling an empty, unemoting shell, I withdrew to my desk, document in hand, to dedicate myself to fixing the egregious error.

Indeed, for years now I've been aware of the emotional scripts that my jobs entail, and of course I've read my Ehrenreich and Hochschild. In every work environment there exist general emotional and mood rules I am expected to adopt, like a particular cheerful tone for phone conversations and a tone reserved for visitors coming to the office - with appropriate adjustments depending on whether it is a complete stranger or a Member of the Board of Directors who has just walked in. Then there is the knowing how to prioritize the order of information on ongoing projects when bringing them to your boss's attention and this is done by factoring in her current preoccupations and general tenor of her workday. The manager owns a monopoly over the sense of urgency, and you need to know which one of the three issues of equal urgency will suit the boss's current vista. There's also the know-how involved in defusing crises - which are as often as not somebody's mood crises - and knowing how to recognize a real as opposed to a mood crisis or the one produced by a deliberate managerial overstatement in order to energize the employees.

Then there is the think-ahead, which is rather the worry-ahead, but for other people. Will there be enough postage in the postage machine before the big campaign and will the post office require a special pick-up? What is your plan B if two other people in this chain of action do not honour their commitments before the deadline? What if Joe's Filter Spam is too strict, sends your email with instructions to the Spam Quarantine and he finds it two days late? Do we need insurance for renting this space for a public event? Coffee and tea pots need to be ready before the meeting. Make sure that the microphones include the stands. And always count items in the received shipment before signing the receipt sheet. You must never forget what's on your boss's schedule so that she wouldn't have to think about it during a meeting. The essence of pink-collar administrative and assistant jobs is this contracting down of worry.

All the while, you need to appear content with your job. "I've noticed you haven't seemed particularly happy coming to work this summer", I was informed once by the same association director. I examined my demeanours and a sense of guilt immediately took root. A "positive, can-do attitude" requirement is now prominent in job ads and increasingly sought after in job interviews.

Work done can lose its value catastrophically if not accompanied by the correct emotion, and even further, the correct emotion often is the action expected. Doing means emoting - and now not only on customer-service and client-focused jobs but also in those that are seemingly administrative and managerial. Some of my friends tell me that they are trying to perfect the skill of knowing when to provide flattery and when straightforward work delivery. This is, they claim, their way of managing their boss.

"Making your boss happy"

This phrase has long been uttered in work environments to convey an understanding - with some metaphoric exaggeration - that this meant ‘obtaining approval for your work' and ‘having it recognized that you are doing the right thing' or ‘achieving the set goals'. But now it literally means what it says. ‘I try to keep her happy' in a conversation of employees in the land of assistantship is now less likely to mean ‘I do an outstanding job' than ‘I produce her good mood' - in fact, the two are so indistinguishable now that the dichotomy sounds somewhat counter-intuitive for a contemporary office worker. Can we conceive of it any more, that there is such a thing a doing an outstanding job without satisfying the emotional requirements that it carries? ‘Making your boss happy' is now closer to meaning: making sure that your presence or mention produces a particular type of feeling.

I remember a moment during the interview for a job of an assistant to the executive director of a city agency. When conversation took a more informal turn, a (woman) interviewer suggested that part of the job will be to "keep [my future boss] happy". My being an executive assistant now largely means learning how to predict somebody's needs, taking over their cares and keeping them content and on track. This is what traditionally friends or mothers once did, and in an environment of equality or kinship, not divided by rank. Having to be your boss's friend without her ever having to reciprocate is now an ordinary work requirement.

The system of references that you carry from one job to the next makes sure that you can never quit your job of your own volition and in the way you like. Quitting spectacularly is now only in the realm of dreams, or implausible movies. The likelihood of getting your next job is directly proportionate to the amount of happiness your last boss can express about your performance to your would-be employer. You may avoid including your most recent boss as a reference without raising suspicion only in exceptional circumstances - if you can offer two other recent bosses' expressions of contentment, for instance.

Esprit de corps and keeping peers happy is frequently as important. Every job with a group-belonging component nurtures such expectations, but I found them especially heightened in social activist or political organization settings. And not only in those which favour consensus decision-making and use the word ‘community' with positive connotations. No: everywhere. De rigueur is to be part of the team: attending staff parties and socializing after-hours, recollecting war stories and paraphrasing good press coverage, going over the basics of our ideals and goals in conversations. There must be no reluctance to wear badges, buttons, particular colours of belonging at events and gatherings. Which is just one of the ways I failed a woman politician I used to work for. No matter the 14 hours workday for months on end, no matter the unpaid hours and unclaimed overtime: the unwillingness to wear a certain kind of shirt at a certain kind of parade was nothing short of treason.

Women bosses

I have been avoiding facing the fact that it was women bosses in particular who presented me with high emotional management demands. My feminist awareness, fundamental to my worldview since I was 11 years old, is making me feel particularly queasy about the implications of this line of thinking. Had I had a series of men bosses, there would also be emotional demands, only of a different sort, I tell myself. But why do women in positions with some decision-making power resort to such a highly gendered and contradictory blend of anxiety of authorship' coupled with an authoritarian streak? Have conditions of patriarchy and capitalist management created a specific breed of woman boss that I always end up working for - both emotionally needy and rank-ist, fiercely ambitious and lacking the courage of their convictions at one and the same time? And at what point might we stop using such ‘sociological circumstances' explanation to excuse this combination?

All three of my - women - bosses shared a certain style in common. Had they all taken their cue from the same page of a possible Rule Book for a Lady Boss on the Make, this is what it would contain:

  • Periodically create several hundred ideas for projects and partnerships. Toss them around like spaghetti against the wall to see which one will stick. Clarity of vision and unity purpose in a leader? Consider it too bureaucratic for your creative mind.

  • Keep mentioning what you consider your greatest successes in every conversation, no matter the context. Don't worry about any issues around repetition, vanity, or megalomania.

  • Enjoy the sound of your own voice. Be addicted to your ongoing stream of monologue.

  • Keep wanting to meet important people. When you meet them at parties, talk about it to everyone afterwards. Dream up possible projects with important people, in which they donate your organization millions of dollars.

  • Finish everything at the very last moment before the very final deadline.

  • Expect your assistant to be your friend one moment, then scullery maid the next. You will decide when the right moment is for each.

  • Every informal cocktail conversation, every chance encounter at an event is an opportunity to sell your wares and talk about the organization you're heading. Those are most decidedly not opportunities to freely discuss ideas or art or charm people with your erudition.

  • Get very nervous before a Board of Directors meeting and revert to the behaviour of a schoolgirl cramming before her next exam.

  • Difference of opinion from those under you equals heresy. (Actually, two of three of my woman bosses held this position; one is still willing to accept hearing reasoned disagreement under specific circumstances. Whether she takes it into account is another matter, but one must begin with small steps.

As I continue to navigate together with my lady bosses, I think I am getting better, more alert. I am better at reading signals early and responding to them more adequately. I'd like to think that I do it consciously and with an ironic distance, and not as a well-conditioned behavioural reflex. I may be quite deluded that I can still tell the difference. Differentiating between conformist acts and seemingly conformist but autonomous ones is a little more difficult than we, office ketmans, like to believe... Another golden rule - don't think too much.

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