If there’s one thing that my previous company culture learned from restaurants, it’s the importance of a good staff working lunches meal. The 2005 “Best Places to Work” program study showed that, contrary to popular opinion, employee satisfaction didn’t depend on salary. The most given answer as to what makes a company a great place to work is employee empowerment.
And what constitutes employee empowerment? I believe it comes down to a few basic principles, the third of which is effective communication.
Millions of words have been written on this subject, and yet it’s still a huge problem, especially in the legal world. Why? Think about how attorneys are educated – they go to law school and learn how to be adversaries and advocates, keep secrets, and always look for the hidden agenda. That’s not exactly the best education for an environment that usually thrives on teamwork, knowledge, and trust. Attorneys are also expected to be good managers and effective businesspeople, and yet that’s not taught in law school, either.
I’ve worked at firms where communication with staff was discouraged; in fact, attorneys weren’t allowed to even take their secretaries to lunch unless it was their birthday or secretary’s day. Obviously, that firm was not concerned with effective communication with their staff unless, of course, it was strictly one-way communication (and in that firm, it was). It was a difficult firm to work for because staff never really knew what was going on, knew they were not thought of (much less treated) as equals, and were not encouraged to challenge themselves in any way.
I also worked in a firm that really went out of their way to communicate the firm’s culture, goals, and current financial status. Needless to say, it was a much more open environment where creativity was rewarded, training was available, and the firm’s actions were much more understood since the staff was informed of the firm’s financial status.
What did the second firm do differently and how could communication be even more effective?
o Have a real ‘open-door’ policy. Everyone is familiar with the ‘open-door’ grievance policy. It’s in every policy and procedures manual I’ve written, reviewed, or consulted on. So that means it’s practiced, right? With grievances, it usually is since they’re concrete issues that must be dealt with. However, I find that many times the ‘open door’ is overlooked in any other aspect. If staff feels like they’re not being heard, an advocate for them is necessary but will only be sought out by the most vocal people. A good way to really know what’s going on in a firm is to just walk around and ask everyone how they’re doing. After you’ve done it a few times, you’ll actually get answers and more of the staff will be coming to you to keep in touch.
o Look for teamwork opportunities. Every firm should be based on teamwork, but in actual practice, few are. In most firms, staff feels like they’re not told the status of cases, the actual practice, or issues that may affect them. Due to client confidentiality issues, not everyone on the staff should be aware of everything that goes on in a case; however, the ones that are actually working on the case should be informed of the general status of events and be included in the victory (or commiserating), thank-yous, and acknowledgments. If staff is made to feel a part of the legal team, they’ll be much more conscientious and forgiving. And this attitude doesn’t just extend to the actual practice side – it’s imperative on the administrative side as well. Decisions that involve staff should be explained to them. And the best way to explain is to…
o Remember the WIIFT rule. Everyone wants to know ‘What’s In It For Them.’ The very basis of teamwork is knowing your part in the overall goal and how the result will affect you. Does this mean the result will always be beneficial to you? No. However, prior knowledge of expected results makes everyone feel “in the loop” and that’s really what most people want. Not many like to be surprised when it comes to issues affecting their livelihood.
o Leggo the (m)Ego. This is one of the most difficult things to learn. We all have egos and feel that many times, we’re right and the other person is wrong or we’re smart and they’re a brick shy of a load. In the words of Dr. Phil, how’s that working for you? Really effective communicators take their ego out of the conversation. They concentrate on the result, effectiveness and clarity of the exchange, not on score-keeping. How do you know if you’re guilty of this? When someone is talking to you, are you thinking of what you’re going to say next? If so, your ego is getting in the way. True listeners are concentrating on what the other person is saying. Responses and questions will flow naturally if you’re really paying attention. The next time you find yourself thinking of the questions you’re going to ask, stop yourself. Don’t worry about looking clever – concentrate on the other person’s intelligence and thoughts, and let the conversation flow naturally.
o Just say what you really mean. In today’s litigious and politically-correct society, businesspeople are wary of talking clearly. They’re afraid of being misinterpreted or having their own words used against them. Attorneys are especially conscious of this, plus many are in the habit of using ten words when two will do. However, this is usually counterproductive. Most people want to know what you really mean. How do you know if you have problems with getting your point across? Count the number of questions and what’s being asked after giving an assignment. If it’s more than three questions and the answers seem obvious to you, you probably need to work on this. It’s not up to the secretary to figure out what you’re trying to say – it’s up to you. Communication is a two-way street, so ensure that your road isn’t blocked. Speak clearly, say what you mean, ask that the instructions be repeated back, and answer any questions calmly and fully. Acting exasperated or treating the staff as idiots will not accomplish your goal.
o Make it all make sense. The end goal of any communication is understanding – whether it be a process, idea, story, opinion, etc. The first time I saw “2001: A Space Odyssey”, I was very confused. The storyline just didn’t make sense to me. I felt that Stanley Kubrick had played a practical joke on me and wanted to make me look foolish. It was filled with all kinds of symbolism, pop-culture references, and futuristic technology. I just didn’t get it. However, when a friend explained the back story to me, interpreted the symbolism, and caught me up on the references, I got it. I went to see it again and had a totally different experience and really appreciated it. Sometimes we communicate the same way – we fail to fill in the back story, explain the references, and deal with the technology of what we’re trying to get across. Knowing where something fits in the puzzle makes our understanding much clearer. The next time you’re talking with someone and they get that vague look on their face, stop. Ask them what piece is missing for them. That one small piece of information will probably change the whole dynamic of the conversation and get the result you’re wanting.
Nothing is more frustrating to a staff person than lousy communication. Many feel that they’re expected to just take the ball and run with it, but are never given the playbook. They feel that if they mess up, it’s their head on the chopping block. Are you having a communication issue with someone in your staff? If so, it’s not 100% their fault. You must take responsibility for your part and do something about it. Without effective communication, employees will never be empowered and will feel like they’re always on the defensive.
Nickie Freedman is a professional speaker, business consultant and trainer. She is the founder and principal of Legally Large, a training and consulting company dedicated to helping firms rise to their next level by optimizing what they already possess – their people and their processes. Contact her via or 512.791.9644.
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