Secretarial: Demands with menaces

Treated badly at work? Take a course on how to cope.
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The Independent Culture
GET THE office buck-passer to take responsibility. Persuade your bolshie colleagues to lighten up. Turn your boss's pessimism into constructive criticism. Only in your dreams? Not according to an abundance of new courses offering employees the chance to deal with "problem colleagues".

Secretaries and PAs have to deal with a larger number of staff and their problems than most, and yet many of these staff treat their secretarial colleagues as as if they are of low status, says Peter Honey, chartered psychologist and author of Problem People (Institute of Personnel and Development pounds 10.95). "No wonder these staff become perceived by secretaries to be an `office menace'," he says. What's more, research shows, even in the Nineties, secretaries often fail to question this attitude, feeling that they are not in a powerful enough position.

Ken Back, co-author of Assertiveness at Work (McGraw-Hill pounds 11.99), adds that short-term effects of behaving passively can seem attractive. "There may be a reduction in anxiety because you have avoided a potential conflict. There may also be an escape from feelings of guilt which would have followed from upsetting someone." Your average "problem people" course will attempt to convince you of the detrimental effects. "You get taken advantage of, you become stressed; you are less productive," explains business psychologist, Marie Mosely. "It's why employers are doing something about it."

In fact, combative reactions can be catastrophic. "Behaving aggressively can lead to a brief reduction in tension owing to the release of pent- up emotions, which other people tend to reinforce. `I liked the way you put him in his place,' they might say, making you feel really good. The problem comes in the long-term when you experience a growing loss of self- esteem, an increase in anger and hurt, and above all, never getting what you want."

The best starting point for any course or self-help guide is a psychometric test, she says. "This will make explicit what behaviours of others might drive you insane and what behaviours of your own might drive others insane. This will give you some idea as to how much of the problem is with you, thereby giving you a chance to be more objective. It will also reveal that there is no such thing as a problem person, only problem behaviours."

Then, says Peter Honey, participants should think of some real examples of behaviours that irritate them and follow a four-step guide. "First, consider doing nothing. Something fortuitous may happen to solve the problem or you may calm down to the extent that the problem disappears." If that fails move on to step two which is about taking a fresh look at the problem. "You may, for instance, have labelled someone as a worrier whereas after an analysis, you may realise their manner in the workplace is simply conscientious and caring, says Honey"

This is, he says, the most difficult step. "If it fails, move on to step three which involves persuading the person to change. They may not even be aware that some aspect of their behaviour is a problem and if you concentrate on facts, taking the personal out of it, they might understand. This is rarely adequate in the long-term, in which case try step four - modifying the situation."

Problem behaviours never "just happen", he explains. They are always a product not just of the person but of circumstances. Change the situation and you change the behaviour. "Look at the triggers - whether it's your own behaviour, lack of time or something else. Then look at ways to change those."

Jane Clarke, a business psychologist, has found that the most common office menaces for secretarial staff are their bosses. It's one of the reasons that forward-thinking companies such as Sony and the Body Shop have gone a step further than problem-people courses by introducing the 360-degree appraisal - in which information about staff's performances is collated from as many sources as possible.

Sometimes called multi-sourced feedback, it has only been introduced at secretarial level during the past few months but it is catching on.

Clive Fletcher, professor of occupational psychology at Goldsmiths College, London and author of Appraisal: Routes to Improved Performance, is in favour of it although he does recognise potential drawbacks. "People giving the ratings may fear some adverse consequences if they give negative feedback, or that the feedback may be misinterpreted by the individual. "

It is for this reason, claims Honey, that for the time being at least, self-help remains the most popular method of coping with difficult colleagues.