Which type of relationship would you like with your Personal Assistant?

I need not emphasise how important it is for you and your Personal Assistant (PA) to have a good working relationship.  For this to happen there needs to be clarity about what you expect as this impacts how you interact with one another. It also impacts on having a great working relationship that is built on trust.

Working with your Personal Assistant successfully is about navigating the employer employee relationship to ensure that you have a motivated and engaged PA who provides you quality support for as long as possible.

Once you recruit your Personal Assistant, you become their line manager.  So in exactly the same way as an employee working in any business, irrespective of size, they are accountable to you and you ensure that they:

  • Have clarity about the support you employ them to provide
  • Are working in a safe environment – both physical and emotional.
  • Receive regular constructive feedback on their performance
  • Stay engaged and motivated to do their best for you.

What’s the ideal?

You may not have given this question much thought but I would urge you to do so. 

Usually when issues arise with Personal Assistants, I have found that it’s because a lot of people haven’t been clear on the relationship they want with their Personal Assistant and then manage that accordingly.

It’s an important one to think about because whilst you are entering a formal relationship with your Personal Assistant i.e. they are a paid employee working in a non-traditional way.

“Start as you mean to go on”.

To help you think about this question in more detail, let me share with you four types of Personal Assistant relationships so you can understand why it’s critical you define the relationship you want with your Personal Assistant.

The ‘master/servant’ relationship

Maybe you like your Personal Assistants to be present but as inconspicuous as possible.  You expect them to act like employees in the truest sense of the word where there is formal distance between you and your Personal Assistant. 

For example you may insist that your Personal Assistant doesn’t call you by your first name.  That they sense check everything with you, you tell them what to do and you expect them to do it without question.

The advantages of this relationship is that it may seem easier to maintain a certain distance between you and your employee.  There is also no expectation of ‘small talk’ where you might converse about their thoughts and opinions.  This relationship makes it easier to instruct your Personal Assistant however there are some enormous downsides.

If you were a Personal Assistant in this scenario, how engaged and motivated would you feel?  Would you feel inspired to go the extra mile for your employer?  Help them out even if they don’t ask?  Share ideas about different ways to do things?

Would this relationship make work an enjoyable vocation for you?

Having this relationship may seem helpful in the beginning if you worry about either becoming too attached to your Personal Assistant or that if you became friendly with them, it might make it difficult to direct and supervise them when necessary.  These are valid concerns but there are other strategies you can use to overcome these and I’ll talk about those later on.

The ‘professional’ relationship

This Personal Assistant is someone whose background is in health or social care.  For example they could have been a health worker or even a social worker.  These Personal Assistants are familiar with having clear roles and responsibilities and are familiar with carrying out their work to high standards…mostly. 

In this relationship, you have a Personal Assistant who is knowledgeable about health or social care and you may feel that this means they know what to do, how to do it and will need minimal supervision.

However, the reality is something a little different.  You may find that your PA will only focus on certain tasks and they could be reluctant to get involved in social activities as this is not something they ordinarily would have done as part of their professional roles in the past.

In fact research by Neumann and Gunderson recommends that it might not be the best idea to have a professional as your Personal Assistant.  The employers they interviewed as part of their research found that Personal Assistants can sometimes come across as ‘know it all’s’ and as a result they feel they know best and can take control.  Moreover they are less likely to listen to your needs and wishes because they feel they know best.

So whilst it may attract you to have a Personal Assistant who is an ex professional (with previous experience of health or social care), this could cause challenges with your relationship as your Personal Assistant may be used to being the one in charge.

what kind of relationship do you want with your Personal Assistant?

The ‘colleague’ relationship

Whilst you may be their manager, there is a recognised expectation that the two of you will work together towards a common aim.  You need support and your Personal Assistant will work with you to execute that in the best way.

This Personal Assistant will have different skills you recognise and value.  Because they are working for you and with you, they are likely to more engaged and happier with their work. 

You may not be friends in the truest sense of the word, but you may share common interests, feel comfortable to talk to each other about many things over a cup of tea but there’s no expectation to socialise outside of work.

You are relaxed in each other’s company and there will be times when your Personal Assistant is comfortable to challenge you on certain things and you respect and value their opinions so you are receptive to that.

The ‘friend’ relationship

You may not like having a formal relationship with your Personal Assistant and whilst you are paying them, you would prefer that they act in a friendship capacity.  To put it another way, you want to emphasise the social and emotional aspect of your relationship.

What does this mean in practice?

Well as part of their job description, you may include companionship alongside general Personal Assistant tasks.  In this relationship, they may know a lot about you, your family, your values and may even attend family events as you see them as ‘part of the family’.

This relationship can feel very rewarding.  There isn’t the perceived formality of a traditional employer employee relationship and you feel you pay someone who also is a friend.  In your mind, you believe that your Personal Assistant is happier in their role and more likely to go the extra mile for you.

Whilst this may sound attractive in principle, this relationship can cause challenges.  It can become uncomfortable for the Personal Assistant who just wants to do their job and wants none of the emotional expectation that comes alongside this relationship.

The other challenge you have is that it can also become difficult for you to raise any concerns with your Personal Assistant due to worry about upsetting them, and vice versa. You may find yourself in a situation when they take advantage of your relaxed approach to their work, knowing you value the emotional support they provide and therefore thinking you are unlikely to take them to task as you would do in a more formal employer employee relationship.

The ‘you’re like a member of my family’ relationship

Another type to Personal Assistant relationship is one that’s akin to family.

You may have known them before they were your and your relationship has developed over time to a point where they feel like an extended member of your family. 

You may have deep affection for one another and sometimes, may view them as a son, daughter, sibling or parent. 

Although this relationship can last much longer, there is a danger you may end up getting drawn into each other’s personal problems which detracts away from the job you need them to do. 

There is also the risk that if they ever left, this would have a devastating effect on you because it is akin to losing a family member. The other challenges are like the ones I mentioned with the ‘friend’ type Personal Assistant relationship.

Which relationship is best?

Many would argue that to maintain a good working relationship there needs to be an element of friendship between you and your Personal Assistant for the relationship to work on a long term basis.

From my experience I would suggest that the ‘colleague’ type Personal Assistant is the best form of relationship to have.

Having mutual respect for one another, but still maintaining professional working boundaries is a key part of long term retention of your Personal Assistant.  You want to make it easy for them to come to work every day.  They need to feel relaxed and comfortable but also they are working as part of a team.

No one wants to be told what to do and when to do it without feeling like their ideas and contributions are valued. So think about the type of Personal Assistant relationship you would like with care. It sets the tone for the future.

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