Before we can discuss why it is absolutely imperative for you to treat your administrative colleagues well, you have to understand power. There are many kinds of professional power and power principals at play in any professional office.
The first kind of power, of which you are no doubt most familiar, is positional or “legitimate” power. This is the type of power, which refers to, “power of an individual because of the relative position and duties of the holder of the position within an organization” (Wikipedia). In other words, this is your boss.
This is also the power that your boss’s boss holds.
The very same power resides all the way up to the ultimate authority for your organization. It is this type of power which gives your superior the legitimacy to give you instructions, renegotiate agreements or immediately terminate your employ.
In addition, positional power holders will also have coercive power. That is to say, the ability to motivate you by allowing you to know about potential rewards (a paycheck or good grade) and ensuring your action takes place by withholding or reducing those rewards when you fail to meet expectations (salary reduction or termination).
We should also note that in and of itself, this tends to be a very ineffective form of motivational power because it develops into resentment and resistance from the targets. Furthermore, coercive power is generally implemented by inept middle men with no managerial acumen, who don’t realize that a judicious application, or implied use, of coercive power is more effective that repeated doses of coercion.
For example, you might train a corpulent bear (Ursus horribilis) to wear a comical flower-print garden hat and ride a very small bicycle around a parking lot full of traffic cones; rewarding him later with a chunk of deer slathered in honey, 3-day old trout remnants and rolled in a fine dusting of Girl Scout Tagalong cookies (which is probably the most disturbing metaphor I’ve ever come up with) or withholding said reward when Mr. Bear refuses to ride or falls off his hilariously minuscule bicycle.
This is coercive power.
Another kind of power, which you are likely to encounter in any professional setting, is “expert power.” This power comes from an individual’s ability to maintain their position because a subject-specific expertise and limited to the particular area in which the expert is trained and qualified, no matter what an office pariah they are. Don’t mess with these guys either. They are too valuable to ever be fired anyway.
Ten years ago this was the “dude who could make webpages look super good” or “14-year-old who earned $42K a year to make Microsoft Exchange Server work.” These days expert power is shifting back to the younger generation; it’s the young professional who can develop and manage a successful social media campaign for a client or really knows the ins and outs of collaborative work via
Google Wave Slack.
While all of these forms of power are omnipresent in the workplace and you’ll be a player in their machinations at some time, the power you most want to understand and be able to harness is the “secondary power” or relational power. At its heart, secondary power involves the threat of force or coercive power, most likely involving third-party exercisers of delegated legitimate power, vis-a-vis, The Boss.
Who am I directly speaking about?
I’m speaking about the Administrative Staff (Admins).
In any organization it is the Admins who make the whole system work. They are the ball bearings under the massive and bloated weight of the legitimate power holders (who are often themselves massive and bloated, as a direct result of to not having to lift a finger since they make their Admins do it for them).
Admins also tend to get a bad rap within an agency because they are “unbillable.” They rarely bring any money into an organization via “billable” client work. They usually don’t have an hourly rate at which a client is charged for their labor or services.
Young and new professionals tend to look down on Admins as workplace “servants” or office housekeepers, whose only job is to make sure their needs are fulfilled, the coffee maker is working and the microwave has been cleaned up after that bowl of tomato soup explodes and you sneak out of the break room without taking care of your culinary Jackson Pollack.
[Yeah, I’m talking about you, Sarah T. on the 2nd floor. I know what you did last Tuesday.]
This worst mistake you can ever make at a workplace is to get on the Admin’s bad side.
In fact, I’m going to let you in on a little secret that I actually learned in graduate school – it turned out to be one of the most valuable professional lessons I have ever learned. It’s also super simple and easy to remember.
This advice is only five words long.
Always. Be. Kind. To. Admins.
In graduate school, the department administrative staff was responsible for all of the graduate teaching faculty’s (GTF) schedules. If you were well liked (as I was) you could plan to have a great teaching schedule on Tues/Thurs at 11AM and 1PM, get invited to the departmental parties, enjoy free departmental food and get your important documents (like a 130-page dissertation) copied, bound and shipped to your committee for review in the same day.
In addition, because regular students always have to go through the Admin defensive line in order to speak with to a legitimate power holder (The Dean), if there were issues like grade disputes or angry students, Admins could make sure it was resolved quietly or never made it to The Dean’s office.
If you irritated the Admins (or even worse, if you actually treated them as Admins rather than colleagues) you would find yourself on the Far East “Oriental” side of campus (I went to a large land-grant university where campus spanned about a mile east-to-west and included a massive, unavoidable hill right in the middle – so yes, when you went to and from class in winter, it was uphill both ways) at 8:00AM on Mon-Wed-Fri and then on the Far West “Occidental” side of campus at 9:00AM, giving one approximately 17 picoseconds to run the 1,600 meters uphill from one class to another.
In the workplace, Admins also know how the copy machine works and how to fix it when YOU break it. They know whom to call when things go wrong. They have all of the office gossip and they can keep your secrets too. They have friends who’s kids are very attractive (and often available).
They know how much money everyone makes and what time of the morning afternoon you tried to sneak into work last Thursday after an all-night poker bender.
Admins have the ability to get your mandatory time-sheet on the boss’s desk that same day it is due…or lose it forever.
They can get your expense report signed in a timely manner…or not.
They can proofread your next account pitch so you can avoid looking like an ass for all the negligent misspellings of the client’s name in your PowerPoint. If you need a letter of recommendation, they are the ones who can get it done for you.
Admins are the ones who get to file the annual review paperwork, so they know who is on thin ice and they know who is the rising star. They know the organization’s budget and when layoffs are coming four (4) months before anyone else does.
They answer the main phone line and deal with irate clients before The Boss hears about it. They can give you a chance to make it right before you get called on the carpet.
Admins have the ear of The Boss and a good Boss will listen to their Admin’s advice closely.
Think of an Admin as the professional world’s version of a warrant officer. While they don’t truly have positional power per say (in the sense they probably can’t fire you for something), they can make it happen by the mere implication that you should be terminated.
Respect the Admin for the jobs they do.
Now, how do you win an Admins approval? Be nice to them.
Treat an Admin as you would treat your Mom or Grandmother. A surprisingly large number of Admins are, in fact, Moms and Grandmothers.
Ask them how their day is. Perform a random or unexpected act of kindness for them. Publicly compliment them on the job they do. Say thank you when they help and offer to buy them lunch sometime. Bring them cookies from home when you next make them. Ask them about their children or grandchildren. Pitch in and offer to help them when you can see they are overworked or have a huge project. Smile at them. Offer them a present for no reason and without expectations.
Be a good colleague.
I know what you are thinking: “Oh, I get it, you bribe them.”
Perhaps I do, but bribe is an ugly word. I prefer: curry favor.
Now go tell Eunice how nice she looks in that green outfit, she deserves it – and so does your career.