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Uprooting Noxious Habits in the Workplace

Markus is a successful lawyer who does great work for clients and who burns out assistants on an annual basis with sarcastic comments and angry outbursts. Jeffrey is a managing partner who likes to lead his firm like a drill sergeant at boot camp. 

I am on a mission to contribute to making our law firms better places to work. One of the big questions I keep grappling with is why do smart, talented, hard-working, ethical people – lawyers – make such a mess out of management? 

One of the answers is found in one of the best reads on my coaching book shelf – Marshall Goldsmith’s What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There. Goldsmith outlines the twenty annoying habits that can prevent smart hard working people from advancing to the highest levels of their professions. These are the behavioural equivalent of spinach between your teeth. To contribute to a healthier and happier work-place we need to start by tackling our own habits. The good news is these habits can be changed far more easily then quitting smoking or giving up potato chips. Most of us have only two to three of the really noxious habits. The way to tackle them is to work on them one by one. Step one is identifying them.

Of Goldsmith’s top twenty habits here are the top five I see most frequently in law firms: 

  • The ‘but’ shut down
  • Speaking when angry
  • Failing to give proper recognition
  • Not listening
  • An excessive need to be ‘me’

The ‘But’ Shut Down: 

‘But’ and its cousin ‘however’ are the killers of innovation. A fresh new idea is put forward and someone quashes it. “Nice idea, however that won’t work here.” “Interesting points, but the reality is our clients won’t appreciate being troubled with a survey.”

The ‘but’ shut down is starting a sentence or statement with ‘but’ or ‘however.’ I call this a shut down because communication and discussion are closed off instead of opened up. It doesn’t matter how much you might sugar coat it, when you open your statement with ‘but,’ the message is ‘you are wrong’. 

“Janine, you are a good lawyer and exceeded target again this year which is great, but …” In this case it doesn’t matter what follows. Janine is not going to feel valued. The message is it doesn’t matter that you are a good lawyer and exceeded target, it is not enough.

There are other ways to express disagreement or an opposing idea without negating the contribution of another person. Try replacing ‘but’ with ‘and’ or state your differing view directly: “Thanks for bringing this forward. I can see from the research you have shared that many firms are using client surveys effectively and that they can uncover important information. I have some concerns about this approach I would like to talk through with you.”

The use of ‘but‘ and ‘however’ have reached epidemic proportions in our language these days. Watch how many times you and others say them in a day. We use them even when we don’t mean to. Take the ‘but out’ challenge. How much can you reduce your usage?

Communicating When Angry:

I am sure we all know a senior lawyer or two who have advanced far in their careers, have an enviable client list and yet who we all know cannot manage their temper. This is beyond having spinach in your teeth, this is the equivalent of walking around with your underwear sticking out of your fly. 

I have seen lawyers rage at assistants or associates for mistakes. The angry dressing down does not help the situation. It does not help the person learn. Not only that, it damages the angry lawyer’s reputation. 

If you wonder if this might apply to you ask yourself this question: How many assistants have you had in the past five years? How many of them asked to leave? If more than one assistant asked to be transferred to another lawyer you just may have an anger problem.

If you are prone to subjecting others to your temper I recommend that next time you remain silent. The best strategy is to close your door and keep quiet until it passes. It may feel like you are going to burst, but you will not. The anger will subside on its own and you will effectively have avoided a confrontation or outburst. (For more reading on anger management try Honor Your Anger by Beverly Engel.) 

Failing to Give Recognition:

In law firms no news is good news. Our law firms are deserts of positive recognition. Some lawyers I know don’t hear anything about their performance until their annual review. One of the simplest changes we can make in our law firms is for each of us make a concerted effort to provide recognition to our colleagues for their good work and achievements. Start with the people you work closest with and make an effort to positively acknowledge them. Watch for the opportunities and track at the end of each week how well you have done.

Not Listening:

It is easier not to listen then to listen. It’s even easier when we are smart and think we already have the answers. Every practice group meeting I have ever sat in is full of lawyers not listening. I know of one managing partner who sat in every meeting leaning back in his chair and typing away on his blackberry. Not listening sends a very strong message to the people around you. It says: “I’m not interested.” “You are boring.” “I don’t care.” And a multitude of variations on this theme.

The inverse is equally powerful. Listening builds trust. Listening deepens relationships. When you give people your attention and listen to them they feel valued. All the business development coaching and training I do begin with supporting lawyers in becoming better at listening. Listening takes effort and it is worth it.

If you choose to tackle just one of the habits, focus on listening.

An Excessive Need to Be Me:

“I don’t recognize people because that just isn’t me. I don’t feel comfortable praising people. That’s not my style.”

This is the habit that shuts down the opportunity for making positive changes in behaviour. An excessive need to be me really means: “I am going to justify not adopting positive management practices because they don’t feel natural to me.” 

Each of us has a pile of behaviour which we define as ‘me’. It’s the chronic behaviour, both positive and negative, that we think of as our inalterable essence… “Hey that’s me. Deal with it.” To change would be going against the deepest, truest part of our being. It would be inauthentic… This misguided loyalty to our true natures – this excessive need to be me – is one of the toughest obstacles to making positive long-term change in our behaviour. It doesn’t need to be. (Goldsmith, p. 96.)

Or in my own words, get over yourself! Becoming a better leader or manager or indeed person is about focusing on others. It is about switching the focus from ‘me’ to the people around you. 

Do you have trouble meeting deadlines? Procrastinate? Then tackle these habits one by one. They are not some part of an essential core of being that cannot be changed. With just a little focus and attention we can transform our most noxious habits.

The process starts with identifying the habits you want to change. Listen to the feedback you are getting from the people around you and look for the evidence. How many assistants have left your employment? Are you a person people feel comfortable coming to with problems or are you pretty much left alone in your office all day?

Once the habits have been identified, measure the behaviour: How many times did I use ‘but’ and ‘however’ in the day? On a scale of 1 to 10 how well did I listen in the meeting this afternoon? How many times did I offer positive recognition today? Did I miss any opportunities for recognising someone’s accomplishment today? How many times this month did I catch myself in anger and stay silent before lashing out? “If you can measure it, you can achieve it” says Goldsmith.

Making our law firms better places to work requires effort on a whole number of levels. This one was about what we can each contribute in our own day-to-day. How we show up at work. How we interact with colleagues. These and other interpersonal investments can make a small but powerful difference. Start by identifying one habit and make a commitment to change today.

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