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Curmudgeon's Perspective

A Matter of Trust: Can They Work as a Team?

By Otto Sorts

“I don’t think this is going to work.” Judith slouched in the chair opposite my desk. “I mean, I don’t know if I can trust her.”

I understood. One of our firm’s high-powered litigators, Judith was aggressive, tough on opponents, tough on her own people, and not particularly empathetic. Sally, on the other hand, was relatively new to the firm, and one of those quiet, effective sorts who tend to accommodate those more senior, rather than push back.

How Could They Work as a Team?

It wasn’t a perfect match. Judith’s workload was such that she desperately needed help, but she had trouble delegating. Her arguing with staff sometimes kept people from getting work done. Sally was a little passive for Judith’s taste. But I thought assigning Sally to her might work. And, honestly, there weren’t many other candidates willing to put up with Judith. There had to be a way to make this work.

I started by asking Judith how much she knew about Sally — her background, work style and outlook. Part of Judith’s concern was that Sally didn’t seem very career-oriented, or see the firm as key to her career. I talked to Judith about the newer people in the workforce, and how they had less faith in institutions than we more senior lawyers did. When we were starting out, we expected the firm to look out for us, even though it didn’t always work out so well over time. These new ones are focused on the work and the people around them, not the institution.

I suggested Judith get to know Sally better, and share a little more openly about herself and her own ambitions — try to make it a more human interaction.

Then I asked her to identify Sally’s “flaws” for me. They didn’t seem all that significant, but Judith wanted someone more “perfect.” She was caught up short when I suggested that she meant someone more like herself. We agreed that I didn’t need to list Judith’s own imperfections. I did note, though, that most of Sally’s flaws were merely “style” — things that could be accommodated if the two women would just talk about them. Judith needed to clearly communicate what she wanted from Sally, what criteria must be met, and where Sally had leeway to “just get it done.”

I suggested she try to think of Sally as a team member working with her to achieve an end, and that she emphasize what they would accomplish together, rather than what they would do. Sure, a successful outcome would benefit Judith, Sally and the firm, but what would it do for the client? It wasn’t just another “win” or notch on your belt, but it served the client’s needs. My point was that Sally might respond better to an external goal than an internal one.

In sum, I gave Judith the following advice:

  1. Be clear about your expectations. Don’t expect others to know what you want unless you tell them.
  2. No one is perfect. Accept that people have flaws that need to be addressed, yourself included. Remember that everyone is only human.
  3. Focus on the outcome, not the work. A team is built around accomplishment. Make clear goals and share them.
  4. Trust your team. But verify the results.

As Judith had said, it comes down to trust. But that sword cuts both ways: Judith had to trust Sally, and Sally had to trust Judith. That’s where communication becomes extremely important. Both need to know what is getting done, what is left to do, and who is going to do it. Through better communication, they can learn how to trust each other.

“Trust everyone, but cut the cards.” — Finley Peter Dunne

Categories: Communications Skills, Curmudgeon's Perspective, Daily Dispatch
Originally published June 9, 2015
Last updated April 28, 2018
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Otto Sorts Otto Sorts

Otto Sorts has been reading law since before Martindale met Hubbell. Of Counsel at a large corporate firm that prefers to remain anonymous, Otto is a respected attorney and champion of the grand tradition of the law. He is, however, suspicious of “new-fangled” management ideas and anyone who calls the profession the legal “industry.” When he gets really cranky about something he blogs at Attorney at Work.

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