How to do a good job at turning off your employees…
by David J Bilinsky
Come Monday mornin’ I’m the first to arrive
I ain’t nothin’ but business from nine to five
…Well I’m a hard livin’, hard workin’ man....
Words and music by Ronnie Dunn, recorded by Brooks and Dunn
The traditional view of management is that they must be continually focused on motivating employees lest the business fall into rack and ruin. However, recent research published in Harvard Management Update (Jan 2006) shows that most employees are very motivated when they start a new job. But, after less than a year, their motivation drops off significantly. Why? Paradoxically, the answer appears not to lie with the employees, but rather with management. Rather than motivating people, management’s style and overall behaviour can be a strong demotivational force that saps the natural energy and willingness of employees to do their best. Furthermore, when management thinks that the problem lies with the employees (of course it doesn’t lie with management!) they then implement policies that only accentuate the difficulties faced by the employees. You now have a downward spiral with management believing that they must ‘crack down’ further as they perceive their employee have a problem with motivation.
So what can be done to break this spiral and put staff and lawyers on a positive track that leads to happy and motivated staff and management? Here is a selection of tips put forward in this area:
- Respect: Management often adopts a ‘need to know’ approach to communication. This inevitably leads employees to frustration as they are not clearly and consistently told why certain actions must or must not be done. Displaying a lack of respect for an employee’s need to understand not only what they must do but also why they need to do it is a very strong demotivational force. It reinforces the “us” versus “them” view of labour and management, it excludes employees from feeling part of the team and it leads to distrust – as employees never feel that they are being told the full story. Communication is poisoned as anything management says must be in turn, searched for its “true meaning” – leading to speculation and suspicion.
- Recognition: Everyone likes to be recognized for their accomplishments. However, when a lawyer overtly takes credit for something done by the staff, or even worse, never recognizes when the staff has saved his or her bacon, the staff quickly catch on. Lack of meeting the basic human need of recognition – before clients, before other staff and before other lawyers – can quickly quell the motivation of any staff member to “go the extra mile” for any organization.
- Expedite: Staff look to management for one major reason – to solve problems that are difficult or impossible for them to address due to their position in the firm. By failing to take action to make your staff’s job easier when requested to do so, you have clearly shown that you are unconcerned with your staff and the problems they face. Next time, be a hero by stepping up to the plate and quickly bulldozing a path for them to allow them to do their jobs as they wish to do them.
- Purpose: In some cases it is clear why staff members are being asked to do something. However, there may be tasks and projects that they undertake that are not clearly aligned with meeting client needs. In these cases, it is necessary to communicate how the task meets the overall needs of the firm. It is even better if all tasks can be tied to a “principled” view of the firm – in other words, a mission statement that clearly states what purposes the firm serves, other than just being a vehicle to make money (for example, it would be a goal for the firm to be a leader in the community and a conduit for social change). These principles on which the firm lies will be the bedrock to which all the work of the firm is related – from providing pro bono services (as it meets the mission and goals of the firm), to building an informational infrastructure that allows the firm better meet the firm’s stated goals.
- Workloads and Pace: There is an old story about the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Unfortunately, management can fail to heed warnings that continually adding to workloads or expecting too hectic a pace can be counter-productive and lead to burnout, absenteeism, and departures. If any of these are a factor in your firm, you may wish to speak to your staff and start a dialogue about what is a reasonable workload and turn-around time period for work in order to improve the morale for the betterment of all.
- Team Members: Another old adage is that one rotten apple can spoil the whole barrel. In this case, failing to deal with a non-team player when you are trying to build up a strong functional team can be a frustrating exercise at best. Moreover, by keeping the rotten apple, you are communicating to the rest of your staff that standards are not enforced and there is no need for anyone to perform at anything but a mediocre level. This is one exception to the rule that firing someone (after visibly trying to improve their performance) reduces morale. You may hear the quiet cheer when the troublemaker is finally shown the door.
- Take the Blame: In addition to giving credit where credit is due don’t allow public fault to fall onto your staff. Leadership is demonstrated by openly accepting the burden if something did not work out as planned. This does not mean that you don’t work diligently behind the scenes and find out why something went wrong and take steps to correct it. However, if you clearly communicate in acts, words and deeds that your desk has a plaque that says “the buck stops here,” you will encourage your staff to trust in you and this builds positive morale.
Management needs to be aware of not only how to actively take steps to positively motivate staff but also how their actions or inactions, as the case may be, may actually demotivate staff from the initial enthusiasm that they bring to their positions, in order to achieve an office full of hard-working men and women who are all business from nine to five.
David J. Bilinsky is the Practice Management Advisor at the Law Society of B.C. E-mail: email@example.com. The views expressed herein are strictly those of the author and may not be shared by the author’s employer, the Law Society of B.C.
This article originally appeared in the October 2006 issue of BarTalk and is reproduced here with permission of both the author and the Canadian Bar Association, British Columbia Branch.