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The Friday Five

Five Ways to Drive Your People Crazy

By Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

Work can be stressful. Sure, sometimes you really enjoy your work, particularly when things are going your way. And, of course, you know the things you can do to reduce and manage your own stress levels. (Don’t you?) But is it possible that you are a source of stress for the people who work for and with you?

Smart professionals nurture and develop the people around them because truth be told, the people in your firm are the most valuable — and difficult to replace — resource you have. Even if they don’t “report” to you, as a colleague, you have a responsibility to make working together as positive and stress-free as possible. Your work product will be better, the team will be more productive and creative and, yes, your own stress level will stay down.

Five Common Missteps When Working With People

Hundreds of books have been written about how to manage the people you work with. Let’s take a different tact: Here are five things you should not do if you want to keep things running smoothly, good ideas flowing and general grumpiness in in check.

1. “Bring me a rock.” 

You may remember something like this from law school. Someone gives you an assignment, you do it and bring it back, only to be told, “Nope, that’s not what I had in mind, try again.” Yet you get very little guidance upfront or on the second or even third time around for what the assignment should look like. If you aren’t precise with people about what you want, you leave the results at the mercy of their guesswork. And the number of times you send someone back to the rock pile to bring something different can go up and up — as they grow more and more frustrated. If you want a large red rock with purple stripes, say so. If you don’t know what you want, ask the colleague to help you figure out what you want by gathering more information and discussing it with you. If you can get your requirements on the table up front, when the product arrives, the two of you can assess together how and whether it meets them.

2. Expect perfection, now.

You are a unique individual to work with. We all are. We have our special quirks and tics and ways of looking at things. It takes time for the people who work with you to learn them all. It is important — and smart — to allow someone ample time and gentle training before she gets it perfectly right. Taking time to explain carefully, remind, illustrate and ask for feedback is an investment in developing a colleague or employee who totally gets you, knows exactly what you want and tries like crazy to fetch it for you. If you don’t take that time, you could spend the rest of your days in new employee hell wondering why no one does things the way you want them done and whining because no one wants to work with you.

3. Be the roadblock.

Stephen Covey used the metaphor of a bicycle race to illustrate the leader’s role in a workplace. The smartest managers, he said, didn’t have to actually mount the bike and ride it themselves. Rather it was their job to run alongside the bicyclist, checking in from time to time while administering encouragement and resources. (“Are you thirsty? Here’s some water!”) That’s precisely the reverse of the way many lawyer-managers do things. If you see yourself as the Grand Poobah who must sign off on everything, meet every client and proof every last document while your people dab your forehead and bring you tea, you’ll never grow confident people capable of working without supervision. Step-by-step, certainly, but allow the people you work with to take on more and more responsibility and you will create a fiercely loyal team bent on proving their trustworthiness.

4. Ask and ignore.

Of course, priorities change. One day that thing you asked an associate to produce in a super-quick hurry is absolutely critical, and the next day a client’s crisis has superseded everything else on your desk. Still, if you’ve asked someone to do something significant, it is the professional thing to do to respond in a timely fashion when they deliver it. Maybe you asked for a rough draft of a letter or development of a trial strategy. If it arrives on your screen at a moment in time when you just can not take the time to read it and get back to that colleague, at least have the grace to acknowledge receipt, say thank you, explain your new time constraints and advise when you will be able to focus on it. If you were in such an all-fired hurry about it before but now respond with silence, it is too, too easy for that young lawyer to think: a) you didn’t receive it, b) you hated it so much you can’t find the words to say so, c) you really don’t think his work is very important or d) it was just busy work in the first place.

Do this often enough and, in the future, when you really need something in a hurry, you may not find anyone who will help.

5. Change the rules capriciously.

People hang their hats on routine. I know that sounds boring. But it is a rare office that thrives on irregularity. If the systems you create change too frequently, your people will spend all their time trying to figure out what’s going on and none of their time getting to the meat of their work. If you want to use the Google Calendar to set meetings and agendas, do it. And stick to it. Don’t decide to switch to Vyte the next week and then work with a sheet of paper posted on your office door the next. Make it your goal to put good systems in place. Then leave them long enough that you all forget they are even running and just get on with your work.

Illustration ©

Categories: Communications Skills, Daily Dispatch, Law Firm People Management, Teamwork
Originally published June 24, 2016
Last updated October 26, 2022
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Merrilyn Astin Tarlton Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

Merrilyn is the author of “Getting Clients: For Lawyers Starting Out or Starting Over.” She has been helping lawyers and law firms think differently about the business of practicing law since 1984. She is a founding member of the Legal Marketing Association, an LMA Hall of Fame inductee, and a past President of the College of Law Practice Management. Merrilyn was a founding partner of Attorney at Work. 

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