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Problems Hiding in Plain Sight?

The Elephant in the Office

By Joan Feldman

Some years back, I worked in an office where the boss was obsessive about how callers were greeted on the phone. Then a new receptionist was hired who stumbled and bumbled and just could not get the phrasing to his liking—no matter how hard she tried, how much he scolded or how many well-meaning colleagues tried to coach her through it. It got so bad that the rest of us would jump to beat her to the phones when they rang—covering for her because that seemed easier than dealing with what had become the proverbial “elephant” in the office.

The solution was pretty simple. Why not change the greeting’s phrasing to something she could manage better—or just ask her how she would like to answer the phone? But because the boss wanted it his way, instead of questioning the “system,” the staff’s energy was spent protecting her, protecting the firm’s image—and hoping to keep the boss from overhearing and raising hell.

What’s Your Elephant?

Ultimately, that receptionist was sent off to a different department—and that’s another elephant in most law offices. Rather than deal with personnel issues head on it’s more comfortable to shuttle under-performers around to the unsuspecting. After all, nobody wants to tell Jason that his low-riders are distracting the other paralegals. Or bring the bad news to lovely Carol that she’d better figure out the new time entry system or her 20-year seniority won’t mean squat to the new group head.

So, how many elephants are hiding in plain sight in your office? How many unspoken pacts have been signed that leave underperformance — or worse — unaddressed? You don’t always have to be the one with the right answer. You just need to be smart enough to know where to find it.

Put Everyone on Elephant Watch

Make it easier, perhaps imperative, for anyone you work with to reveal any lurking elephant. You want them to feel free to talk about it—and to help you find the solutions. Ask, and reward them for their frank answers.

  • Why ask? Because the view from a different angle is always helpful when solving problems or making decisions. Because it’s better to learn about mistakes sooner rather than later (e.g., on social media). Also, when you ask people for their opinions, it makes them feel valued. They will feel good about themselves—and about working for you.
  • Who to ask? Ask anyone with a vantage point to see things objectively or differently than you: partner, associate, paralegal, messenger, client. Make it safe (confidential, if necessary) to make suggestions. Ask frequently for feedback on your own behavior and make changes accordingly.
  • When to ask? Anytime. You can ask formally, during performance reviews, and informally—and immediately. Or later, at the end of a project or matter. Ask “How do you think that went?” Or, “How could the team have done better?” Demonstrate that you respond well to constructive criticism, too.

Bottom line: Even in the happiest workplaces, we’re all human. Silly and irritating stuff is going to happen. But when a mild irritant threatens to become a full-size disruption, you need to know the people all around will point you toward it—and help you load up the elephant gun.

Joan Feldman, Editor-in-Chief of Attorney at Work, is an editor and writer who has created, steered and contributed to myriad practice management publications, including ABA Law Practice magazine, where she was Managing Editor for a dozen years. Follow her @JoanHFeldman.

Categories: Communications Skills, Daily Dispatch, Law Firm Culture, Law Firm People Management
Originally published July 18, 2011
Last updated April 19, 2018
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Joan Hamby Feldman Joan Feldman

Joan Feldman is Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of Attorney at Work, publishing “one really good idea every day” since 2011. She has created and steered myriad leading practice management and trade publications, including the ABA’s Law Practice magazine where she served as managing editor for a dozen years. Joan is a Fellow and served as a Trustee of the College of Law Practice Management. Follow her on LinkedIn and @JoanHFeldman.

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