Dear Crucial Skills,
I have been a legal secretary to a lawyer for more than 18 months. She used to stay on top of things, but recently she has become unmotivated and unresponsive. For example, I prepare letters for her review and deliver them early in the morning, but she doesn’t review them until 30 minutes before I’m due to leave the office, and then she wants me to get the letters sent out. I work full-time and have four children, and I have told her on several occasions that I cannot get letters finished that late in the day as I need to leave. I’ve tried letting her know early in the day what time I will be leaving and the deadline for getting letters to me, yet she continues to send requests at the last minute and then becomes snippy when I tell her I won’t get them done until the next day. I don’t know how to deal with her lack of motivation. What can I do?
Dear Legal Trouble,
Congratulations. You’ve done a good job communicating your expectations and needs. You’ve laid out clearly what works for you and what doesn’t. You’ve carefully explained the reasons behind your expectations. You have given your boss ample reason to feel motivated to conform to your requests. If you have truly been as clear as you’ve said, the fact that she is not conforming means one of two things:
- She’s not motivated: Other interests or needs are more important to her than accommodating yours.
- She’s not able: You ask how to deal with “her lack of motivation.” You might be wrong here. It could be that the flow of her work makes your requests untenable. Her reality could be that urgent work frequently only manifests later in the day, so your needs don’t fit with workplace reality. If so, it’s an ability problem, not a motivation problem. Carefully consider this possibility. When you erroneously attribute problems to a lack of motivation you can amp up your own resentment and judgment. Acknowledging that ability plays a role helps you be more empathetic and patient with her.
With that said, whether your boss’s behavior relates to motivation or ability, you have two options given your commitment to your boundaries, and they are essentially the same: maintain your boundaries and live with the consequences.
Option 1: Maintain Boundaries and Stay
This course of action means that you’ll only complete letters that fit your schedule, unless you choose to make an occasional exception for exceptional circumstances. If you choose this option, you are choosing to accept the consequences of it, which likely include the following:
- Her continued disappointment. You describe her as being “snippy” when you hold your boundary. Learn to be okay with that. She gets to feel disappointed and even resentful if she chooses. When you choose to continue to perform in ways that don’t work for her, you surrender the right to complain about her reaction. Find a way to be at peace with an upset boss without being petty or detached. One of the greatest indicators of emotional maturity is the capacity to care about others’ feelings without taking responsibility for them. Do your best to care for her needs without surrendering your own.
- Employment uncertainty. If you fail to meet enough of your boss’s most important needs, there is a chance she will decide to find someone to replace you. She has the right to do that just as you have a right to set limits for what you offer your employer. Even if she doesn’t fire you, accept that your upward mobility may suffer in this situation.
The spirit of this option is that you must stop trying to mold her into what you want. You can’t successfully do that with anyone in your life. If you take this route, don’t do so dishonestly—secretly hoping you can cajole her into surrendering her preferences. If you do that, you’ll unconsciously develop resentments and judgments against her. She has forthrightly shown you who she is and what she wants. If you choose the benefits of staying with this employer over changing jobs, take full responsibility for your choice.
If, on the other hand, it’s too emotionally taxing to take Option 1, then you have Option 2.
Option 2: Maintain Boundaries and Go
Find a new work situation that fits your boundaries. This time make your schedule needs a strong filter for the jobs you consider. Don’t wait until you’ve been given a name tag and assigned a parking place to ensure it’s a good fit.
I know this kind of clarity doesn’t make your decision easier. But in my experience taking full emotional responsibility for life’s many tradeoffs helps you live in greater peace with both the upsides and downsides. I’d rather live in peaceful responsibility than insatiable victimhood.
Best wishes in your choice,