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LEADERSHIP

10 tips to turn toxic management into teamwork


By Daryll Esposito

You know how valuable your employees are. The question is, do they know you know it?

The working world is changing fast, and so are the demands of leadership. Successful law offices must nurture an environment that is not only productive but also provides flexibility, opportunity, and job satisfaction. Almost two-thirds of small to midsized companies report that employee retention is a bigger problem than hiring new talent, according to recent research from Zenefits. And when good staffers leave, it creates costly disruptions that can hamper overall productivity.

WHAT IS A TOXIC BOSS?

Leadership is never easy. It requires big-picture thinking, tough calls, and a deft touch to nudge things in the right direction. It also requires mutual trust and respect with everyone you work with. A toxic boss is someone who neglects that last point, someone who leads with self-importance and condescension, rather than inspiration and assurance. It can be something as minor as gossipy behavior or as major as emotional abuse and discrimination. In one poll from monster.com, a whopping 76% of workers claim to have had a toxic boss in their career. This points to a significant problem, but it’s one that can be easily avoided.

TIP #1 – Pay attention. The hierarchies of the law office sometimes make it difficult for employees to be honest about their concerns. They might want to avoid negative attention and drama, or they might be afraid of jeopardizing their position. When those concerns are allowed to fester, they can eventually explode into big problems. Look for unspoken clues of dissatisfaction—slumped-over body language, reluctance to socialize, routine lateness and slow performance. When you see an unhappy worker, be proactive and open up the communication.

TIP #2 – Emphasize collaboration. The best employee is one who is just as invested in success as you are. Create an atmosphere of mutual goals, challenges, and victories. When you celebrate a big case be sure to credit everyone for their contributions, from top to bottom. And always leave your door open (metaphorically and literally) for employees to share their ideas.

TIP #3 – Take concerns seriously. Empathy is an important trait for good leaders. Employees naturally want to be heard and validated when they have an issue, and a big part of collaboration is respecting the feelings of others. A recent Limeade report found that around half of employees polled have experienced negative consequences after disclosing a mental health concern. Stress, depression, and anxiety are common workplace challenges that should be treated with support and resources. Keep up on daily check-ins, offer flexibility, and foster an environment of sharing and honesty.

TIP #4 – Avoid burnout. There are different types of burnout. Sometimes an employee will become fatigued with a repetitive, mundane task. On the other end, someone could be working at a high level but without due recognition or upward mobility. Workers can also experience physical burnout from lack of rest and poor work/life balance. Watch for signs such as midday napping or excessive sick leave. You can prevent burnout by giving routine feedback and ensuring adequate staffing and resources. Make sure you have enough people for the job and that they are well-equipped.

TIP #5 – Keep things clear. Law offices are busy places, and as you know communication is crucial to success. That includes making sure that employees understand their duties and that their roles are respected. There’s no worse feeling than someone stepping on your toes on a task you’re already working on. The expectations of each team member should be clear and specific. Don’t expect your front desk staff to handle the duties of a paralegal, or vice versa. And emphasize a clear line of reporting so workers know where to turn.

TIP #6 – Trust the team. Management is a tricky balancing act. The pressures of your own job are dependent on the productivity of the team. Sometimes this burden of responsibility can lead into the dreaded micromanagement zone. We’ve all known micromanagers —demanding perfection and dipping their fingers into every assignment. In fact micromanagement was the second most common employee complaint in a LinkedIn Learning survey from 2018. Lack of clear communication was the first (see above). Avoid the micromanager trap by trusting in the good people you’ve hired, offering guidance and support instead of orders. Give them a sense of agency and ownership of their work and they will thrive.

TIP #7 – Keep it inclusive. Respect is a two-way street, and good leaders know that actions speak louder than words. It goes without saying—avoid sexism, racism, homophobia, ageism and ableism. Beware of “jokes” that can make someone feel targeted or insulted. Celebrate strengths and uniqueness, resist gossip and “clique” culture. Office friendships are great, but in-group dynamics can easily slide into exclusion and drama. Make sure everyone feels involved.

TIP #8 – Provide the proper tools. Adequate preparation is the best way to ensure someone has confidence and investment in their work. Make sure employees are equipped with relevant technological resources, information sources, references and training. For example, if an employee complains about outdated client software, take their concerns seriously.

TIP #9 – Be firm but fair. It’s understandably frustrating when a worker fails to meet expectations. Figure out what went wrong and approach the problem collaboratively. Explain the details of the job and its importance and encourage questions and brainstorming. Try not to shame or reprimand poor results—this almost always leads to worse outcomes rather than better.

TIP #10 – Lead with integrity. Managers create the culture of the office by the examples that they set. Demonstrate the values that you want your firm to be known for. If you want employees to feel responsibility for their work, always make sure you’re taking responsibility for your own. Have easy and routine communication with your direct reports so that you’re always on the same page. And never be afraid to apologize—followed quickly with a plan for how to do it better next time.


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