Angela Garry’s encounter with a toxic colleague led her to commission a cartoon with the types of people she has worked with over the years

I met a snake at a recent training event: a really venomous, dangerous snake. I’m not sure of her name, or where she was from. From our conversation, I ascertained that she is in her mid-fifties and deeply unhappy with her life. For now, let’s just call her “Miss Snake”.

The training event was for a large number of Personal Assistants working in schools. Miss Snake attended a session that I gave, and later that day she tried to pick a verbal fight with me about some issues she had with my subject matter.

Why do I call her a snake? Quite simply because to anybody else in the room who might have been watching, they would probably have thought that she was having a lovely conversation with me: she was smiling sweetly throughout, regardless of the venomous words coming out of her mouth.

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Now, don’t get me wrong: I have no problem with anybody who attends one of my courses or seminars giving me some feedback. I’m quite happy to take on board criticisms or comments that I may have said something that wasn’t clear, or questions about where I got my information from.

This woman, Miss Snake, did not offer criticisms or comments, or seek clarification.

She didn’t speak to me as if I was a peer – she spoke to me as if I was something unpleasant that she had trodden in. She tried to break me down by being downright unpleasant, rude, nasty, and by continually speaking over me and not allowing me to answer. All the while, she continued to smile sweetly, nodding her head, her eyes lighting on other people across the room and flashing her teeth at them. To all intents and purposes she looked like she was telling me how much she enjoyed my seminar.

Her criticisms centred around one major point of my seminar, regarding future planning. For my own part, I am very passionate about PAs, as I believe we have some of the greatest skills in the workplace. I’m very passionate that we should receive excellent training opportunities and be able to make the very best of ourselves. I’m also passionate that we should have a great work/home life balance – and that, whatever our aspirations may be, we have a chance of reaching them.

I don’t believe that every PA should be constantly reaching for the stars in everything they do, all day, every day, or that we should all try to be the most ambitious person ever – but I do believe that we all need to have an idea of where we are going, if for nothing else than to have an idea of what we might like to do when, one day, we hang up our audio typing headphones, put away our pencils and stop organising the boss’s diary – in other words, what we might do in our retirement.

Miss Snake was clearly unhappy that I had mentioned this within my seminar that afternoon. She criticised my emphasis on the importance of PAs having some sort of a plan to further their career, saying: “that’s rubbish about the PA having a career plan, PAs don’t have a career or a plan. I, for one, don’t care where I am in 10 or 15 years’ time. In fact, I hope I’m dead in 15 years’ time.”

I was astounded. This came from the mouth of a woman who works in a school, with children who could be easily influenced by her words, her attitude, her actions.

I felt that there was nothing I could say in response to this other than to ask her, with a look of innocence, “Then what are you doing at a CPD event? What on earth are you trying to develop?”

She was unable to give me an answer, and I extracted myself from the conversation with this woman as soon as I could.

Sometimes there is no point in trying to win an argument just for the sake of winning an argument. I was not going to win against a woman with such a downbeat attitude towards life, who frankly didn’t care if she was dead in a few years time. I don’t want to spend my time talking to someone like that. I want to work with the living – Miss Snake seemed already emotionally dead, as far as her career and her life were concerned.

I went away deeply troubled by my conversation with this woman. To think that someone might have so little to look forward to felt depressing and disturbing. I wish her well. Mostly, I hope that I will never have that attitude myself. Nor that anyone I know will have it – and that they will instead look forward to living fully and enjoying themselves.

This leads us to a specially commissioned PA cartoon on Toxic Colleagues, drawn by the multi-talented Andy Case of BASEillustration.

I challenge you to spot the various types of people you have worked with over the years!

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Angela Garry is a Trainer, Mentor and Coach for Personal and Executive Assistants, and has worked with almost 5,000 assistants via her company Pica Aurum since 2012. In the midst of going through several years of extremely bad health, she decided in 2014 ... (Read More)

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