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What PAs Can Learn from the FBI About Dealing with a Challenging Boss

April 23, 2020  |  3 min read
What PAs Can Learn from the FBI About Dealing with a Challenging Boss

Our CSO, Georgina Bale on the crossover of skills between great Personal Assistants and the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit.

Let’s talk about challenging bosses—or at least, challenging times with your boss. The nature of the PA role relies on a strong relationship because it’s built on trust. Also, it’s one of the few roles where you can’t just escape into your headphones and cool off for a few weeks—you need to communicate with your boss, and work on their best personal interest, every single day (even if they’re really testing your patience.)

During those times when you’re faced with challenges in your working relationship, it can really take its toll on how happy you are in the workplace. Just to be clear, there’s a big difference between ‘challenging’ and ‘awful’—if you’re genuinely unhappy in your role and the thought of going into work each morning fills you with dread, it’s maybe time to think about looking for a new opportunity (we can help you there.) However, if you believe the relationship can be improved, the FBI might be able to help.

The Behavioural Change Stairway Model

Although hostage negotiation isn’t quite as dramatic as dealing with a challenging boss (although I’ve come across exceptions…), there are some frighteningly similar elements. The BCSM tool used by the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit when dealing with a hostage situation is a fascinatingly accurate comparison to how to manage up. It consists of five stages—active listening, empathy, rapport, influence and finally, behavioural change. The situation is not quite the same, but these five steps can be applied during a 1-to-1 meeting to turn things around and build a better working relationship between you and your boss. 

Step 1: Active Listening

Active listening is when you really listen to them and make them aware that you’re listening. This is an opportunity to get the feedback you need and hear about the situation from their perspective (which will help you to come up with a solution). When actively listening, it’s all about them—let them set the agenda, don’t interrupt and maintain eye contact throughout. Basically, you don’t want to be an app; a machine can record what they’re saying, only you can process it and adapt it to improve your situation. 

Step 2: Empathy

This one can be challenging, but it means stepping away from your own side of the situation and trying to put yourself in your boss’s shoes. When you show empathy, you get a better understanding of where they’re coming from and how they feel. For them, it shows that you aren’t on the defence and instead, genuinely care about resolving the issue. 

Step 3: Rapport

Empathy is what you feel, rapport is when they feel it back. After you’ve shown empathy and reason towards them, they begin to do the same for you. This type of conversation builds trust (which—as mentioned above—is fundamental to the relationship between a senior and a PA.)

Step 4: Influence

Now they trust that your negotiation is in good faith, you’ve earned the next step, which is to work on problem-solving and recommending a course of action. Top tip: Come prepared with a few suggestions beforehand—they might change slightly—but if you show that you’ve already thought about the next course of action, it communicates that your intentions are, and always have been, about creating a better solution for everyone. 

Step 5: Behavioural Change

In a hostage situation, this is the point when the negotiation is resolved there and then. In a PA’s situation, behavioural change takes longer, intentional practice from both parties. With every action you take in light of the discussion you had, you’re building trust and taking steps towards a much less challenging relationship. 

Just like FBI agents, personal assistants need these soft skills to excel at their jobs. Even when times aren’t challenging, applying these steps to feedback will set a solid structure for the relationship between you and your boss. 

Did you know, 14% of assistants said they would benefit from training on managing difficult people? We offer game-changing workshops and 1-to-1 training sessions for personal assistants and support staff at all levels, to equip you with all the skills you need to succeed in your role as it continues to evolve into the future.

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