By Dr. Thomas J. Venardos
Below are a few examples of conversations that occur among staff when dealing with difficult communications and firm leadership. “I only wish that people in this office could tell me what our direction is for the firm.” “The management says one thing and does another, they are so inconsistent.” “The management seems to give us too much information, when only a few facts or examples would do.” “All I want is a little information about issues around here rather than having dead silence.”
The one major problem that confronts many law firms is that of poor, inconsistent, or nonexistent office communications from management. The office staff looks to firm management for direction, vision, example and high standards of clear communication. Effective leadership implies a comfortable personal relationship with staff, making a positive influence for getting real results, and showing practical possibilities to get the job done in a timely and correct manner.
When effective leadership and communication is not occurring or is lacking, there tends to be confusion about expected job roles, lack of quality professional relationships and poor job performance. People begin to experience feelings of resentment that is usually reflected in not being motivated. The issue then becomes, why try to do anything when management can’t communicate direction or vision effectively. Thus a sense of anxiety sets in because the work is not getting done, everyone knows it, but no one will talk about it. Everyone is to blame, yet no one will take the responsibility to be accountable.
Sending mixed messages is the first style that needs attention by both attorney’s and administrators. This basically occurs when we send one positive message followed by, or confused with, a negative message. An example is “I like your written work, but you need to improve your spelling.” Another example is “I can’t do without you in the office,” followed by, “you are not as competent as the person you replaced.” This kind of communication tends to confuse people because they don’t know which statement to believe. One single message, which goes as follows, might provide a clearer communication: “You are doing fine and I like your work, but there is room for improvement and we can explore this together.” Receiving a mixed message is perceived as a put down which allows too much room for personal negative interpretation or mis-interpretation. Single messages are more accurate and easy to read while getting much better positive results.
Then there is the attorney or administrator who uses the closed, secretive communications style. These managers tend to say as little as possible to the staff as a whole but prefer to talk one-on-one so that no one in the office has the entire piece of communication. They tend to plan and strategize in secret and only let pieces of information out over a period of time. One example might include revamping the responsibilities of a certain department or team. The attorney or administrator might take each person into the office one at a time and assign new and different duties without telling the others. There may be reassignments of who handles budget matters, who makes key decisions and who talks to the clients. A more effective way to communicate is to provide everyone with the same information at the same time. This is called open communications. This yields more positive results between staff and management. It also generates a higher trust level and shows that the management is above-board, honest and has nothing to hide.
Responding with a moody communication style usually creates negative emotional responses from staff. They often feel like management is bringing their problems to work and taking their feeling out on them for no reason. People are real sensitive to mood swings, or administrators who are expressive one minute and non-expressive the next. An example is an administrator who comes in real upbeat praising everyone and within a half-hour is grumpy and begins to criticize others for very minor reasons. Some examples of minor reasons might include having the radio on, speaking to another staff member while working, or taking a longer than permitted break. These little annoyances can bring about major emotional responses from both management and staff and thus create a highly emotional charged office environment that can run out of control.
It is far better to provide consistent and stable emotional communications. This way others will respect you for your evenness, stability and predictability with you communication style. They will be able to provide you with the kind of mutual communications you deserve when you ask for something to be done. You will also find that you will get fewer negative emotional responses from the staff because you are setting the emotion communication tone for the office.
Another major communication style that is seen in offices and that is demonstrated by many managers is the I am too busy syndrome. This implies that you do not have time to give to others because your work is more important than your staff. It further implies that taking time to communicate with them is a non-priority and takes a back seat to everything else that goes on in the office. In essence you never get to know them and they never get to know you as a person or professional. Thus, they cannot represent you accurately to your clients or make you look good as a professional. As a result you may lose the respect of your staff and clients which may in turn cause you to have rapid office turn over and consequently fewer paying clients. Just take a moment to think about when you go to a place of business and there is always a new person greeting you who does not know you. How do you feel? Right, you feel less important and have to develop a business relationship over again with that new person.
So it is very important for you to not to be so very busy and take the time to talk to your staff. A small investment of your time will yield both personal satisfaction and generate greater staff satisfaction. It may even result in more financial success.
Giving incomplete information or direction is another style of communications that creates problems for the attorney, administrator and staff. An example would be “I want you to inform my client that I will not be able to meet with him today.” First of all, how is this to be executed? Can this be done by phone, e-mail or does it have to be in writing? Secondly, do you want to set up another appointment and when? Thirdly, what reason should be given for the cancellation? These are the kinds of thoughts that go through a person’s mind when they are given incomplete information or direction.
Providing complete information and direction is much more effective. If you are in a hurry and can’t think of all the necessary communication yourself, get into the habit of asking your staff, what else do you need to know? By clarifying and asking the questions yourself, you will get the information they need to function more responsibly. Checking yourself against the other person can only help clarify communications and make it more accurate.
Intimidating communications works on intense emotions of others like feelings of fear and anger. You tend to get negative emotional responses from others rather than their responsiveness, accuracy and compliance. When someone is afraid or angry they tend to make more mistakes and provide a poorer quality of work output. They are more concerned with how they feel than getting the job done correctly. You may intimidate by your gestures, the level and inflection of your voice, your negative attitude, or the curtness of you responses. Even when you claim not to be intimidating, you may appear to others as being threatening and offensive. An intimidating comment might be, “I expect you to be right on time every morning and not one minute late.” Or you might write a memo that implies people are not doing their work and you remind them that their work hours are 8 to 5, with a half hour lunch, and a ten minute break in the morning and afternoon. To many people this sounds like you are accusing them of not doing their work and they are merely playing rather than working.
Having a friendly tone when communicating can get you more positive results and a better reputation with your staff. By asking your staff to be involved and assist you in making office decisions, you may get much more responsible and accountable solutions and behaviors. You can ask, “how can we solve this problem of office coverage?” “I need your input with several possible solutions to make your job more manageable and the clients more satisfied.”
Finally, communicating about and lingering on the past without reference to the present or future make you a very boring “attorney/administrator historian”. People usually don’t care about how good it was back then or how you had the best professional relationships ten or twenty years ago. Your current staff wants to know about preserving the good things now and how to make the future more exciting and tolerant. Your examples about how simple things were when you didn’t have computers that malfunctioned will not impress anyone today. No one cares about the fact that there are more lawyers today than twenty years ago who create more competition for you. People want to solve today’s problems with tomorrow’s solutions and not yesterdays memories.
Learn to communicate with an eye on the future. Your visions and dreams may become part of your staff’s goals and strategies to improve the law firm. Talking about how efficient we are by using computer technology, like word processing, spreadsheets, and the billing system, will help everyone in the firm to have a common goal that can be achieved by using a common language with similar resources. Leadership is strongest when you can join two factors: effective communication with a shared vision of the future.
Assessing yourself and having others in the office assess you on the above communication strategies can provide you with valuable information about your communication effectiveness. On a scale from one to five, one meaning that you possess very little of the positive style and five indicating you possess a lot of the positive style, rank yourself on these seven styles. Then have others rank you. Compare the two to see if there is agreement of perception or disagreement of perception as to your negative or positive communication styles. If there is a significant disparity, check to see why the big difference. If you are seen as a very negative communicator seek some personal advice and coaching to make appropriate changes.
Remember change is not bad and can create improved professional respect, leadership and effectiveness. It may even bring you greater profits! Good luck.
Dr. Thomas J. Venardos is an adjunct management consultant with Olmstead & Associates, Legal Management Consultants, St. Louis, MO, and President of Venardos Management Group, Organizational Performance Consultants, located in Albuquerque, NM. Dr. Venardos may be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.