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MANAGING THE OFFICE

5 steps to building a law office staff that cares

What’s the climate like in your organization? Is it productive? Is it inclusive or exclusive? Do your employees enjoy coming to work? Do you?

If yours is a high-performing office, buzzing with productive employees who enjoy coming to work, well done! If it isn’t, then it’s time you did something about it—because, as the manager, the organizational climate is your responsibility.

In a webinar presented to Law Office Manager subscribers, Dr. Steve Cohen, President/Partner of Labor Management Advisory Group, and HR Solutions: On-Call, shared his advice on how to build a law office staff that cares. And some of it was not what you’d expect.

“What I’m going to share will illustrate that management is counter-intuitive,” Cohen announced at the beginning of his webinar. “Your intuition tells you to go one way, but the better direction would be to go the other way. And since the cost of trial and error is so high, you have to do things right pretty much the first time.”

Here are Cohen’s five steps to building a law office staff that cares. How many of them feel counter-intuitive to you?

Step 1: Strive to be an organization, not a community.

“Many small organizations of 30 or fewer employees will talk about how their organization is a bit of a family, looking out for one another,” Cohen says. “Small organizations tend to want to be a community and I’m here to say that that’s a counter-intuitive notion that’s a mistake. Rather, you should want to become an organization.”

What’s the difference?

According to Cohen, in an organization, individuals are drawn to groups, groups become working groups, working groups become advanced working groups, and advanced working group become an evolved team.

“Let’s say an individual joins the military and he or she becomes a member of the army, assigned to a command structure,” says Cohen. “This structure becomes a working group. The next step is to form an advanced group, say navy seals. The working group becomes that specialized group of people that are high-performers who are highly motivated. Eventually, the members of the advanced group have been together for so long they can anticipate each other’s sentences and actions; they are an evolved team.”

The evolution of an organization is designed to build skills and be productive. As an organization evolves it becomes more selective and exclusive. Cohen suggests you imagine what it would look like if the navy seals were not exclusive and they let anybody in who wanted to be in. They’d have a lot of unqualified and unskilled members.

It’s the same with a company, Cohen says: You expect employees to follow the rules, follow the policies and share the ethics and the visions. In exchange, the employee can stay and will be paid.

This is different from the evolution of a community.

“A church group or a family is a community that is fundamentally inclusive,” says Cohen. “So in the church, for example, people who choose not to sing or sing poorly or too loudly or off key, it’s ok. In fact, they probably wouldn’t even get thrown out of the choir for this. A community is fundamentally inclusive and it is actually harder to build a community.”

The evolution of a community starts with a pseudo-community. This is when people don’t know each other and the conversations tend to be superficial. According to Cohen, this stage is fundamentally unsatisfying to most people. They want more and, as the community evolves, the situation goes from pseudo to chaos.

“People lead very stressful lives,” says Cohen. “They don’ have a lot of room or capacity to listen to other people’s ideas or notions because they’re already full. It’s not until they’ve unloaded—through conversations about their divorces or ripples in their family—that they’re ready to hear what others have to say. This stage tends to be chaotic, distracting, and unproductive as people get past their own biases and towards empathy.”

Build your group into an organization, Cohen recommends. If you allow disruptive behaviors to filter into your company because you’re an inclusive community, you’re not going to be much done. And, as Cohen points out, “The whole objective of your law office is to be productive and turn out billable hours.”

Step 2: Learn to recognize the three kinds of behaviors in your workplace.

The next step is to recognize these three basic types of behaviors operating in your workplace:

  • Overt—which is behavior on a plan. For example, planning to communicate professionalism through appropriate clothing is an overt behavior. Many overt behavior expectations are in your employee manual: We start at this time; we dress in a certain way; we behave in a certain way.
  • Inadvertent—which is behavior on auto-pilot. This is when someone is not thinking about what they’re doing, just bumbling along doing things the way they’ve always done it. For example, someone who behaves as if the context is buddy-to-buddy and tells an inappropriate joke, when in fact the real context is in a business setting, is operating on auto-pilot.
  • Opportunistic—which is predatory behavior. People are exhibiting opportunistic behavior when they take advantage of something or someone to their benefit. “This is the kind of person who makes you want to count your fingers after you’ve shaken hands with them,” says Cohen. “If you can’t trust someone on your team, then that’s a huge issue in the workplace. You’ll be working in a zone where there’s lots of conflict and when autopilot behavior collides with opportunistic behavior, almost 100% of the time, the autopilot behavior is going to be the loser.”

Step 3: Identify the engaged, disengaged, and apathetic members of your team.

“The Gallagher organization has looked at how many employees are engaged, disengaged, and neither, and what they’ve found is that the typical workgroup has only 25% of its employees that are engaged. Those engaged people are the ones you can always count on. They’ve got your back, the vision, work ethic, initiative, and good judgment. ”

On the flip side, says Cohen, the findings also suggest that 15% in the typical work group are disengaged. “Those are the ones who are working against you. They’re trying to undermine your authority and the operation that you’re building or operating. When there’s an opportunity to hurt you or someone they’re going to take it.”

And this leaves a whopping 60% of the workforce who are neither. They’re apathetic. There are reasons why people might not be engaged. Perhaps they have sick relatives or, unlike the engaged group, they don’t live to work, but work to live. It’s ok to have a small number within this group. However, they do tend to be pulled down by the disengaged, Cohen says, because the engaged are so busy being productive they don’t have time for activities that distract from the work.

What if you don’t know if an employee is engaged? What are the telltale signs?

Cohen recommends you ask the engaged employees who else is engaged. “The engaged people know who is faking engagement and who is sniping and lying in the weeds. Most disengaged people will self-reveal. Listen to the engaged. They know who’s in their camp.”

Step 4: Convert the disengaged or use creative means to remove them from your workplace.

“To create a highly effective workgroup, we have to have zero people who are disengaged and a small number apathetic,” Cohen says. “While you might not be able to push a disengaged person all the way to an engaged person, you should at least try to motivate them into the zone where they’re not disengaged anymore. Look at what causes the disengagement. Is it something you can change? If not, change them out. There are lots of good people out there who are hungry for a job; you don’t need to be sitting with disengaged people.”

However, getting rid of the disengaged employees can be difficult

“What’s the worst thing that can happen when you terminate somebody,” Cohen asks. “Well, they come back with a gun. Workplace violence is far more prevalent than one would imagine. That’s the worst. The next worst thing is they come back with a lawsuit, and many employers don’t stand a chance in the labyrinth of rules and regulations,” Cohen warns. “The government is fundamentally biased against you as the manager and fundamentally biased for the employees.”

The next worst thing that can happen when you terminate someone is the fired employee can badmouth you in your marketplace. And you can’t respond. The court of public opinion renders you silent.

“Let’s say you terminate an employee who has been stealing from you or has been insubordinate or threatened violence,” says Cohen. “The ex-employee can, without legal recourse, tell people online or in person that you fired him because you don’t like people of his religion; that you discriminated against him. And if someone comes to you and says, ‘Hey, Joe tells me you fired him because of his religion,’ and you reply, ‘No, he was fired because he was insubordinate,’ then you have violated Joe’s rights to confidentiality. You have no rights. The court of public opinion is controlled by the other side.”

“There are other ways to get rid of these people and that’s what I recommend,” says Cohen. “You need creative solutions.”

The first thing is to consider whether or not the problem is reconcilable. “This isn’t a piece of garbage to discard; it’s a person,” says Cohen. “If there’s a way that they might be changed, then we want to reconcile people.”

However, Cohen adds, “If there’s been a trust issue, a theft or something that can’t be walked back, I don’t recommend termination or lawyers or getting mad or traditional methods. Lawyers tend to look at things from the point of view of the law, which puts them in a one-upmanship point of view. I win/you lose situations are not helpful. It drives people to an ‘I-have-nothing-more-to-lose’ frame of mind, which can lead to violence or other responses. ”

Instead, Cohen recommends negotiating an exit strategy that goes along the line of “I don’t want to terminate you. What we’d rather do is have you voluntarily resign, sign something, take something, and move on.”

Cohen told of a situation where he was asked to help an organization remove a disengaged employee who was a chronic smoker.

“She was addicted to cigarettes and under doctor’s care, so you’ve got the ADA lurking. She smelled of nicotine and was taking all these extra breaks. She also developed a smoker’s hack, where she was spewing sputum and being all-around gross for 30 to 90 seconds. She was creating an internal nightmare and her coworkers didn’t want to work with her anymore. The manager was getting complaints, but the employee knew her rights.

“I sat down to talk to her and the smoker said, ‘I know why you’re here. I know my rights. I’m under doctor’s orders and I’m not going to quit. If you fire me, I will take legal action against the company.’

“I told her to relax and that I just wanted to chat for a bit. I asked her to tell me about herself.”

During the conversation, Cohen learned that the employee was a student, with three semesters left in her studies. She needed the job to pay for her tuition. Cohen probed a bit about her studies and learned that it cost the employee about $4,000 a semester for tuition, books, and living expenses.

“I went to the managing partner and said, ‘You know what it would cost in bad reputation, time and in dollars to fight with this employee. You don’t have to do this. Why don’t we scholarship her?’ At first, they thought I was crazy, but in the end, paying for her remaining tuition in exchange for her resignation was the best solution for everyone.”

Negotiate with people, says Cohen. Get them out of an angry state of mind and into problem-solving. Move them from what they want to what’s in their best interest.”

“We don’t want to throw these people under the bus,” he says. “But we do want them off of the bus.

Step 5: Motivate your engaged staff.

The final step in building a law office staff that cares is to reward your engaged employees above the disengaged and neutral staff.

“Certainly if there is money to go around, the bonus money or performance appraisal money should go only to the engaged. The disengaged shouldn’t get anything at performance appraisal time. They should go on probation. And the neutral should just get a cost of living increase.”

However, if your intuition is telling you that the best way to motivate people is with money, then consider this final piece of Cohen’s counter-intuitive advice: “One of the most important things in a working group is that people feel connected and in the know,” says Cohen. “Communicate with your engaged people and use them as the go-to people. Ask their advice and take their advice. You have lots of different ways to reward people, but the most motivating is to include them.”


Related reading:

How to Build a Law Office Staff that Cares


8 proven strategies for managing people better


3 proven ways to make firing easier on everyone


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