The essential training resource for senior and aspiring administrative professionals The Manager/Assistant Stockholm SyndromeHave you ever felt trapped in an abusive workplace relationship? So have others, and it may now become a recognised problem.
For six months I worked for a luxury fashion brand and I lived a terrible experience. Ifelt like I was trapped in a circle of negative thoughts because the people aroundme, and the company culture itself, were permeated with such a negative andconstraining atmosphere I could barely breathe.After at least six interviews and spending six months under a magnifyinglens, having met the entire important ‘Gotha’ related to my future possiblerole, and after deciding to leave my previous job for a new venture, I discoveredwith horror, that my new boss took great satisfaction in insulting theassistants, including myself. His second hobby was to play off one against the otherto keep supreme control over everybody in his area, dispensing privileges andfavorable treatment like a medieval king.
I began to feel very bad, both mentally and physically, and as a result of thistreatment I was admitted to hospital because I was suffering an acute case ofgastritis. My mind was continuously swirling like a spinning top around the ideathat I was not able to do my job anymore.If this can be considered a psychological disease, and I think it is, I would call it the‘Manager/Assistant Stockholm Syndrome’*, and it happens when the assistant isthe prisoner and victim, without any possibility to defend themselves, and theboss exercises any kind of power on them.
This was the situation in the company I worked for, not only for myself, but for many ofthe employees, most of whom were assistants. We spent more than eight hours workingevery day, elbow to elbow, with managers who were not able to manage their stressproperly, and allowed their frustrations to cascade in the direction of their subordinates.The result was that in this situation, we were like prisoners in many ways: we couldn’tleave our job as we needed the money, but we did not believe in our possibilities; welacked self-confidence and we’re not strong or courageous enough to say no and leave thecompany; or we thought that we were inadequate to work for such an important personthat we believed our boss to be. Even the strongest among us, and I think I was, beingcontinuously contradicted and criticised, transformed us into some sort of punching-bag.After some months of this brain-washing, we began to falter and to make moremistakes, confirming to ourselves that we were not as good as we thought.So, at the end of these excruciating six months, I gave up and I left the company.
Examining the situation from outside, trying to look at it from a different point of view, Iunderstood that the problem was not about my abilities, skills or my professional experience– when we discussed my performance my boss said I did a great job organizing the GeneralSecretary – but it was instead a problem of values. We didn’t share any of the same valuesand the conflict between us had reached a point of no return because the fight was aboutour different way of being and our behavior. My boss perfectly understood that I wasn’t bean ally but a fierce enemy.When a Personal Assistant reaches a certain level in their career, skills and abilities are notenough anymore, and during interviews the evaluation is based on their behaviors, attitudesand the way they communicate a precise style of management, in and outside the company.This style must be shared with the company and with the boss.If we don’t share any values with the company we are interviewing with, and we are notinterested in what they do or produce, we are going to have big problems. If we do not sharethe company’s style of management and completely embrace their vision, but your bossdoes, this particular relationship cannot work.Whatever you try to do will always be wrong both in terms of how you perform your tasksand how you communicate. Without their support we are in the middle of the arena starknaked.
In the book The Devil Wears Prada, this situation is well demonstrated through the negativeattitude the main character has towards the fashion business at the beginning of thebook, and further highlighted at the end when she throws the phone in the fountain, leavesher boss in Paris and applies for a job in what she considers a ‘real’ newspaper, where thefocus is on the economy and what is happening in the world, and not about the color of askirt or the height of the heels in the next season.I’m not sure how many people considered the end of the story from this angle, as I’m suremost people stopped at the happy ending, thinking that after the hell she went through shedeserved to find the job she wanted. My interpretation is that while she despised theexperience when she was living through it, it demonstrated that she could survive anything. She too was trapped, but only for a while, in the ‘Manager/Assistant Stockholm Syndrome’. The real issue is that usually we don’t clearly understand the situation, and we cannot discuss this matter with our boss or anybody else in the company. We would like to offer a different approach to follow for managing situations, information or even people, but can’t because we would touch a nerve at the core of the company, and this cannot be accepted. It is impossible for them to change simply because an assistant is suggesting there could be a different way to think and to do things.
My previous work experiences have resulted in me being more prepared and educated inthese fields than even my bosses. I’m sure I would have been able to provide suggestionsand options to help them overcome problems, but I was never given the opportunity tospeak to them at the same level and offer them all of the available possibilities and paths. This was my third role in fashion or related fields such as shopping outlets and fashion magazines, and now it is very clear to me that I do not share the same values as the typical managers and employees who work in this industry. I really don’t get as excited about the nuances of two different colors as they do!
Similarly, someone may have the same problem if they were working in the petrol industry ifthey had very strong ‘green’ values, or held values about world peace and were required towork in the weapons industry. My suggestion is to evaluate this information before acceptinga new job.The theory behind this is very simple: working in such a situation is almost impossible becausewe are denying our values and our highest principles on which our life is built, meaning thatthe result of our actions is always wrong because we don’t feel confident, we lack ofselfawareness and we lose control of our lives. Some examples of this are: when we write an e-mail our boss may judge that the tone of the communication is incorrect, either too friendly or too formal; when we decide to take an action we don’t feel confident with, the impression we give to colleagues is of lack of professionalism; or if we are asked to do something that we don’t approve of, our internal ‘red warning light’ begins to flash. So we feel completely out of control, like a moth being drawn to a flame. We don’t know how to solve the problem, we try to be assertive and cooperative, but all the while there are some details that keep slipping through our fingers and the result is a disaster, a catastrophe.
As I wrote in the beginning of this article, this is the ‘Manager/Assistant StockholmSyndrome’ and I have met many colleagues trapped in this situation, and have seen them tocome back to life when they changed boss or left the company. I am sure nobody hasidentified this as a disease yet, but it can be seen clearly in so many workplaces.To further credit my thesis, the day I left the company I was at home, a little bitshocked, watching television and thinking about my future, when I came across a programwhere a man was asking for financial compensation for being hired only due to hisappearance and being mistreated by his female boss. Although he had been hired as aMarketing Consultant, in the seven months that he worked for the company he didn’t do anyof the work he had been hired to and was barely allowed to speak as his job was toaccompany the female boss to dinners and weekends at famous and fashionable touristresorts.Only once he tried to say something during a meeting and his boss stoppedhim, saying, ‘With that pretty little mouth you can say whatever you want’.
There was a psychologist on the show, and after a debate, his conclusion was thefollowing: ‘The man has the right to compensation, because during that seven months hewas considered not a person but an object without any consideration for his dignity andemotions.If he was a woman, everybody would have shouted that it was an obvious case of sexualharassment, so he deserves a reward to repay his offended dignity.’ In Italy, sexual discrimination and violence towards women is a hot topic. In this case, due to the fact he was a man, everybody on the show was amazed and puzzled because they couldn’t understand why he accepted the situation for such a long time and didn’t leave the company, saving his face and dignity as soon as he understood the situation. I know the reason why, he was trapped and affected by the ‘Manager/Assistant Stockholm Syndrome’.