I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about working with people over the last 12 years.
Stories about virtual assistants. Stories about web designers. Stories about social media managers, copywriters, and coaches. I’ve also heard plenty of horror stories about clients.
I’ve heard these stories from good people who I care about and respect. And…
I know their side of the story is only one side of the story.
The truth is that our working relationships often go awry because there are unmet expectations, baggage, and trauma on both sides of the equation.
And the good news is that we can absolutely do something about this—at least for our part.
Friends, I have seen some real &*$! when it comes to the way business owners treat the people they pay.
And few things fill me with more rage than workers being mistreated.
Fun fact: Sean fell in love with me because I went on a fire-spitting diatribe about how he was being taken advantage of—and how employment laws were being violated—at his old job. I threatened to punch some folks. Do not mess with me whilst mistreating your employees.
Before I get into the meat of this article, I want to say that if you’ve ever hired someone to do work for your business—a contractor, an employee, a consultant—there’s a good chance you might feel called out.
But I want you to know I believe that 98.3% of the business owners who have had questionable dealings with workers have done so because they truly didn’t know how else to operate. Or they were doing what they thought they were supposed to be doing. Or they were doing what had been done to them in the past.
I’m not calling you out. I’m calling you in.
We can do better. We need to do better.
So much of what we’re doing as we build businesses is replicating existing exploitative systems. These are the same systems that we were trying to escape. The same systems that convinced us we needed to make a big change.
We can do things differently—and we don’t have to operate all by ourselves to do it.
Deep breath. Ready?
Here we go: 5 lessons for working with others.
Treat your virtual assistant the way you’d want to be treated.
This also applies to any and all people you pay to do work for you.
Your virtual assistant is a business owner. They may not charge the same rates you charge. They may not do the same type of work that you do.
But they are a business owner and that makes them your peer.
If you wouldn’t want someone to drop several hours worth of work on you and expect it to be done within 12 hours, don’t expect that of your assistant. If you wouldn’t want someone micromanage you, don’t micromanage them. If you wouldn’t want someone to nickel and dime you, don’t nickel and dime them.
Your virtual assistant is not on call for you. They’re not sitting around awaiting your instructions. They’re a service provider running a business—just like you are.
What’s more, you are your virtual assistant’s client.
Imagine that you’re a coach or consultant (maybe not so hard to imagine…) and you had a client that was regularly passive aggressive, asking you to go beyond the scope of your agreement, or talking down to you.
How would you feel about that client? How motivated would you be to help them out? How likely would you be to dump them?
But I regularly see this kind of behavior visited upon virtual assistants, social media managers, web designers, and others. The business owners engaged in this behavior aren’t capitalist villains. They’re good people who replicate bad systems.
Treating people well and making them feel like they’re important to you (you do feel that way, right?) is part of being a whole-human business owner.
isn’t doesn’t have to be a class hierarchy.
Having a bigger email address or fancier website doesn’t put you on a higher level of business ownership.
Doing creative work doesn’t put you on a higher rung on the ladder than doing admin work does.
Working one-to-many instead of one-to-one doesn’t mean you’ve made it any more than someone else has.
And yet, I see the persistence of familiar class structures throughout the entrepreneurial community.
As Kate Strathmann explained on What Works, business owners often see success as moving out of the labor class and into the asset-owning class. We go from service providers to idea capitalists. From maintenance workers to brand bosses.
But not only does this perception create the conditions for devaluing other people’s work, it creates the conditions for devaluing our own work and even the tacit permission to let many necessary tasks go undone.
We come up with all sorts of excuses for devaluing the care work that goes into our businesses.
We say, “I need to stay in my zone of genius,” or “I need to spend my time on the most valuable work.”
While certainly not the only reason for administrative and operational avoidance, if you believe that there’s always something “more important” to do than the basic tasks that keep the business running, you’re much less likely to do them or support the people who are.
To that end, I’ve found that creating structures that allow me to focus on maintenance work for my business gives me an opportunity to really appreciate the value of that work. And that ripples out to the other people who do that work with me, too.
And that’s not to say that separate roles and responsibilities aren’t a healthy part of the way a sustainable business works. But we need to give care to the way we structure these roles so that we don’t end up implicitly devaluing the work of others.
No one can read your mind.
This one is shocking but true: your team members can’t read your mind. Your colleagues can’t read your mind. Your clients can’t read your mind.
Sometimes I feel like I learn and relearn this one every damn day.
An expectation or a next step often feels completely obvious to me—and I forget that the people I’m working with haven’t spent years building the process or learning that’s needed at a given moment. What’s obvious to me is foreign to them.
To work more effectively with others, I’ve learned to excavate my own thought process and find a way to document it. I can make the next steps or expectations clear simply by getting them out of my head and on to “paper.”
Maybe this is obvious to you. But I hear exasperated business owners express frustration that someone they work with didn’t meet an expectation or follow a process.
When asked, though, these same business owners will admit that that expectation or process was never really communicated. So how could that other person actually do what’s expected?
I’ve found that asking myself, “What do I know that they don’t know?” gives me a framework for figuring out what I need to make explicitly clear in order for us to work together better.
This question has helped me better communicate ideas & projects to team members, onboard new clients and community members, and receive support from friends & colleagues.
There’s (almost) never an emergency.
Fun fact: one of our team members at YellowHouse.Media discovered that a hacker had placed a link for “adult entertainment” at the top of a client’s website. We decided that constituted an emergency.
But in the normal course of business, we don’t have emergencies. We’re not doing heart surgery or putting out fires. Some issues or opportunities do constitute some urgency but never an emergency reaction.
Yet, that doesn’t stop business owners from treating small problems as emergencies. It’s one thing when you’re doing it to yourself (although, that’s not good for morale, either). But it’s quite another thing when you make things you perceive as emergencies someone else’s problem.
Compounding this is the expectation that your team members are “on-call” for you—that at any point in your workday, they should be able to respond to your need.
Unless you’re paying for the privilege of on-demand access when it comes to a contractor or your team members are employees, the people who are working with you don’t have to come when you call. You’re paying for outcomes—not access & availability.
And even if you are paying a premium to have people on-call, do you really want to hold the anxiety that comes from seeing every potential problem as an emergency?
This also pertains to opportunities and new, exciting ideas, too. A couple of years ago, I noticed how much distress I was causing our team by constantly coming up with new ideas and trying to execute them immediately.
Personally, it’s always been a strength of mine. But when it came to keeping my team in the loop, it became a serious liability.
Finally, no one likes to be micromanaged. And I don’t believe anyone likes to do the micromanaging, either.
You don’t micromanage because you’re a perfectionist or you’re detail-oriented.
You micromanage because you don’t trust the person doing the work.
No one wants to be in a long-term relationship where there is no trust. That’s toxic.
No one wants to work for someone that doesn’t trust them. And no one wants to work with someone they can’t trust.
If you feel like you can’t trust the people you’ve hired or you’re exhausted by the amount of feedback you “have” to give those who are working with you, it’s time to either let them go or take the time to build some trust.
Letting them go is a very reasonable thing to do. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or that the team member you’ve let go is a bad person. It just means they’re not a fit for what you need.
Taking the time to build some trust is also a very reasonable thing to do. You might start to build more trust by clearly and directly stating expectations, letting your team member do the work in their own way (within your expectations), and asking for their input on projects or ideas.
Don’t hesitate to apply the Golden Rule of Management when it comes to how you work with others: Manage unto others the way you would want others to manage unto you.
That’s not to say that different team members might not have different needs—or that your work style might be pretty different than your team members work styles. We don’t need to ignore differences to treat people well and create positive, respectful relationships with the people who work with us.
If you’re feeling a little edgy after reading this…
First off, kudos to you for finishing it! Second, it’s okay! It’s never a bad time to start building stronger relationships with your team members. You may or may not be able to repair the relationships that have gone wrong but you will be able to give the next relationships a better chance at success.
That’s good for you. It’s good for them. And it’s good for business.