Is it Abusive to Expect Employees to "Be the Bigger Person?"

Pete Ross

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There’s a thought that’s been rolling around in my head for some time now when it comes to service employees in any industry. They take a lot of crap — far more than anyone else does. They deal with the rudeness of customers, lack of assistance from other departments, and unreasonable requests from higher up. None of this would be a revelation to anyone, because the entire reason so many people want to be rich is so they don’t have to deal with this kind of crap anymore. The entire concept of somehow making “f__k you money” is to have the ability to say “f__k you” when people want you to do something unreasonable.

People in other roles don’t have the worries that service people do (and when I say service people I mean not just customer service, but basically anyone whose job it is to serve someone else, regardless of whether they are internal or external). Salespeople take some crap from customers and do it tough in regards to getting their foot in the door, but they generally out earn everyone else and get handsomely rewarded with prizes and bonuses to incentivise their behaviour. They are frequently seen as the rock stars of the company and considered irreplaceable because they bring in the dollars. When they have a rough day, there is still a lot of upside.

Management takes very little crap day to day. Sure, a supervisor in a store is going to have to face the wrath of annoyed and rude customers just like their front line staff, but once you get into middle management and above, that goes away. The board generally doesn’t yell at a CEO, and a CEO doesn’t yell at a director. There is pressure to perform, but realistically, everyone is always under pressure to perform. Unrealistic demands roll downhill. This isn’t to say their work is easy and they just sit back counting the Benjamins, but society and the companies they work in see and treat managers with an elevated level of respect and far more money.

So the question is, where is the upside in all of this for a service person for the crap they have to deal with? In the army we used to say “crap rolls downhill”, but for the service person, it’s more like being the hub of a wheel and the spokes are all the directions that crap is being thrown from. You don’t get any upside to it, because service people are seen as the bottom of the food chain and offered scant rewards for their effort (and certainly no prestige).

One thing I’ve noticed about those in service in the corporate world is that they are expected to do the heavy lifting on being the “bigger person” regardless of who the customer is or how they are treated, because they’re the one in service. Salesperson treats you poorly? Shrug it off and build a better relationship with them. That guy from accounts ignoring your emails? Well maybe you need to try a different form of communication. Manager constantly speaking to you abruptly? They’re really busy and stressed.

“Be the bigger person” so often sounds like such a wise and moral thing to aspire to, and gives us a north star to orient ourselves to in life. But how does that work when you’re the hub I spoke of? When you have to deal with rude people and put out fires that aren’t of your making, while dealing with unrealistic demands from those above you or around you, constantly being expected to be the bigger person seems almost cruel.

Excuses for less than stellar behaviour are everywhere, and the poor service person (whether they serve a customer directly or many departments in a business) is expected to build bridges, mend relationships and soldier on. Call me crazy, but I don’t think that’s a good strategy for employee mental health. When you constantly have to wear the crap we all deal with but get no understanding, reward or release valve for it, well it’s no wonder so many people hate their job and by extension, their life. They are constantly being beaten down and told to “be the bigger person”, it’s almost a form of bullying.

I remember something I once heard on Dr Phil, many years ago. He said “you teach people how to treat you.” It’s one of the truest things that’s ever been said. The problem is, when you teach service staff that their service is unconditional, regardless of how awfully they may be treated, you teach everyone that deals with them that they can do whatever they want, speak however they want, treat them however they want. When the infraction is small, the service person is told to “brush it off”. That’s a slippery slope, because when you allow the smaller things, they get worse as time goes on. If one day they happen to snap, it’s seen as a surprise and blamed on them having a bad day, when the reality is that it’s been building up over time, because no one ever stepped in to say “that’s not ok.”

Of course as a society we always expect people to stand up for themselves and when they don’t, we blame it on them. We tell people that if they don’t speak up, they can’t expect anyone to know. The fact is, however, that most of us have been told since we were children to “be the bigger person” and constantly expected to brush off the poor behaviour of other people to avoid conflict. If that then extends to being told over and over again at work — a place that you’re spending most of your time, it’s just further reinforcement. You’ve spent your whole life brushing off other people’s poor behaviour, so it’s little wonder so many people can’t speak up when they don’t like something. They’ve been taught their whole life not to.

That aunt that is constantly rude to you at family functions? Oh, you’re supposed to be the bigger person (even though she’s twice your age) rather than telling her to knock it off — after all, you wouldn’t want to make a scene would you? That family member who always loudly voices their obnoxious opinions? Just leave them be, don’t cause a fuss. Your spouse speaks to you rudely in public? Don’t say anything, you don’t want to be “that guy.”

The fact is, we’re taught all the time to swallow our feelings and not say anything for fear of embarrassment or creating a fuss. For the person in a service role at work, they now do that 24/7.

So what is the solution here? Thinking through the problem, I feel like the only real solution starts with you. As with anything, you have to start small and pull someone up when they treat you in a way you don’t like. The important thing is to not make it a big deal — either in your mind or in actual practice, because you’ve never done this before. Baby steps. This is just a small flexing of your emotional muscle, not a PR attempt, so don’t build it up too much in your head or it will mess with you and instead of doing it, you’ll just cause yourself more anxiety.

So for instance if someone gives you an unreasonable deadline, don’t fly off the handle and tell them that they always do this and it’s not fair etc. Instead, calmly explain that what they want can’t be done by then because there are other priorities such as xyz that have been set by someone else. Or if someone speaks to you poorly, just say “hey, I don’t appreciate being spoken to that way.” Most people when confronted with that exact sentence will be taken aback and stammer “oh, I’m sorry.”

That’s expected though, right? Because as I said above, you teach people how to treat you and if you’ve taught them you’re a doormat, you standing up for yourself will be something completely new. You’re probably a little annoyed that there isn’t a call to action for management types to do more for their staff here, but the simple fact is that it has to start with us. The only way to guarantee you’re treated right is to take matters into your own hands. It will inspire other people to do the same, and each time that you do it, you’ll get better at it.

Because at the end of the day, being expected to just suck it up and take people’s poor treatment is abusive. You weren’t put on this Earth to be another person’s punching bag just because they were having a bad day. Pushing back on that doesn’t mean it has to be all out war though — I think if we can all learn to gently push back from a place of kindness, both to ourselves and everyone else, life may get a whole lot better.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.

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