Discover your inner chutzpah

April 1, 2005

How should you deal with intimidating colleagues? Val Atkinson thinks she has found the answer...

We all encounter workplace force fields that are difficult to breach - situations from which we shrink or people that we fear.

Some circumstances - or some colleagues and the response you anticipate from them - just give you the heebie-jeebies.

The head of department, for example, assumes you can do everything from computing an incomprehensible mathematical formula to recarpeting the Albert Hall in your lunch hour, but unaccountably fails to appreciate your extraordinary talent for photocopying double-sided documents with one half upside down.

To make matters worse, several of these documents have gone to the research assessment exercise panel and you have inadvertently stapled in copies of the boss's bank account details. Now you have to come clean.

Can you disguise your sinking heart? Probably, but only with practice.

Everyone, I believe, should acquire an outward attitude of chutzpah, even if the inner self is shrinking to the size of an emaciated acorn.

Power structures being what they are, a fear of disapprobation from the boss is logical. But what if you became that boss, or at least a middle manager? Would you get the heebie-jeebies if you had to seek support for unwelcome tasks?

Imagine being responsible for passing an important audit or delegating chores while organising a million things in a hair-raisingly short amount of time.

Someone has to coax from a recalcitrant photocopier two dozen copies of a 50-page research paper that no one will read. Someone has to cart boxes of Quality Assurance Agency documentation to a distant seminar room, selected to impress the assessors because it has the best view of campus.

But could you ever relish being the person who has to issue orders to that someone? Especially when faced with an intractable rebel, hand on hip, wearing that "what-did-your-last-slave-die-of?" expression.

Within universities, it is a rare breed of privileged individual who has such a sense of entitlement that he or she comes equipped with innate chutzpah. And those who do probably avoid becoming managers, leaving that function to others who have been too slow to decline, or who imagine they can develop the necessary brio with time. But most never do. They get by because promotion to high office carries an automatic aura of power.

Many survive by simply avoiding the most challenging situations. And for some, it even appears that an acute awareness of status can be a worrisome, immobilising burden.

The sight of the tea-lady, for example, elbow on counter, reading the manager's favourite newspaper as she waits for him to have the nerve to ask for a teaspoon, can turn the most accomplished chieftain into squirrel fodder. Meanwhile, it appears that she's the one with effortless chutzpah.

Is she sublimely unaware of the gap in status? Is she so confident about her place in the structure that her manner defies challenge? Or could the perceived triteness of the issue be seen as a bit beneath the great and the good, especially if they are carrying the encumbrance of control with discomfort?

But maybe it is that very gap in status that prescribes the avoidance tactics. Such things tend to follow a trickle-down pattern, with those at the pinnacle of the hierarchy hiring others to do their dirty work. Hence personnel managers and, of course, secretaries.

Besides, if you wait long enough, surely someone else will complain about the permanently stewed tea or the clattering noise of the cola delivery man filling the machines outside the seminar room. And what could be more satisfying than using avoidance tactics to force another person to breach the force field for you?

Passing the heebie-jeebies to someone else. Now, that's what I call chutzpah.

Val Atkinson is departmental administrator at York University.

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