As attorneys, many of us earn our living representing people in conflict. We know, firsthand, that unresolved conflict can be expensive, emotionally depleting, and even detrimental to a person’s physical health. While conflict might be good for keeping lawyers busy, it can be very disruptive and destructive within our own workplace if not addressed and managed effectively.
Based on my experience as an attorney, workplace investigator, and conflict mediator, there are three important practices that, when implemented together, can best mitigate or avoid disruptive conflict in the workplace.
1. Ensure People Feel Valued and Respected
People have an inherent need to feel valued and respected, especially by their work colleagues. This is easy to do when someone performs well and provides obvious value to your firm. This can be much more challenging, though, when someone is not performing well or is engaging in problematic behavior at work.
2. Provide Direct and Honest Feedback About Performance and Behavior Issues
If someone is consistently not performing well, not contributing to the firm, or engaging in problematic behavior, it can be very difficult to make them genuinely feel valued and respected (especially if you do not value or respect their work). This is why it is important to provide everyone at your firm – including partners, associates, staff members, and contractors – with honest, direct, and timely feedback about their work performance and behavior.
All too often, law firm supervisors avoid having difficult conversations about a person’s poor performance or problematic behavior. Instead, the firm leadership may choose the seemingly “easier” path of indirect action, such as limiting work assignments to the person, assigning them less important tasks, and even terminating their employment. But if any of these actions are taken without an honest and direct explanation, the person will feel marginalized and unfairly treated.
The failure to provide honest and direct feedback can also result in the person making assumptions that any actions taken against them were the result of bias or prejudice against the person. Even if the action was taken for legitimate business reasons, a law firm could face having to investigate or defend against a claim of unlawful discrimination, harassment, and/or retaliation. Without a solid paper trail documenting the firm’s concerns about the person’s performance or behavior, any such claim or lawsuit will be more difficult (and more expensive) to defend.
To best avoid these types of complaints and lawsuits, and to best position yourself to defend one if it arises, provide everyone at the firm with direct, honest, and timely feedback about their performance and behavior.
3. Allow People to Be Heard and Understood
Whenever a conflict arises in the workplace – whether about a person’s performance, behavior, or interpersonal relationship with someone else at work – it is important to allow people an opportunity to be heard and understood by those involved in the conflict as well as by the decisionmakers if employment action might be taken. This can be done internally by someone in the firm who can listen in an open and nonjudgmental way. Or, sometimes, it can be more effective to involve an independent third-party to help the people involved in the conflict listen to understand each other’s perspectives.
Regardless of who facilitates this open communication, it is most effective to involve the affected parties in developing an agreed upon plan for moving forward. And, as discussed above, it is important that all the people involved in the process be treated with respect and as valued members of the law firm team.
Allowing people the opportunity to feel heard and understood and to participate in the process of designing a solution to the issue can truly transform disruptive conflict into productive communication and more effective future collaboration. And this, in turn, can help restore and maintain peace and harmony in the law firm workplace.
Brittny Bottorff is a partner with Insight Counsel LLP. Brittny conducts workplace investigations and also coaches individuals and employers on managing workplace conflict.