When employees are asked what could be improved in their organizations, they most frequently respond, “Communications.” But how do employees define poor communication? Usually they cite the failure of leaders to keep employees informed, a lack of opportunity to talk to their supervisors or a paucity of recognition and praise—or all three.
A recent survey by Accountemps interviewed 1,400 chief financial officers, with 41 percent of them reporting that lack of communication between staff and management was the most frequent mistake that companies make. So much so, they labeled it the top mistake of management.
Workers expect leaders to communicate well. A survey conducted by the Association of Legal Administrators identified the top skills for law firm leaders’ success as written and oral communication, combined with interpersonal relations abilities. Both managing partners and legal administrators identified these as the most important skill sets in the survey.
Right now you may be asking how these surveys—or the topic of effective communication generally—relate if you are a solo practitioner or a member of a small firm. The answer is that effective communication skills are needed to understand one another and to work effectively toward a common goal, no matter the situation. Whether you have one person sharing your workload or 100, you need to communicate as effectively as possible.
What can be done to address the need for effective communication when email is keeping most of us tied to our desks with little time to think about what might seem nice to do? First, let’s acknowledge the importance of what lawyers and staff think about communications within your firm. Second, take a moment to consider how your firm is doing on office morale, recruiting and retention of lawyers and/or staff. If your firm is typical, 60 percent of lawyers and staff say improvements are needed.
SO, WHERE TO START?
Arrange a meeting of your leadership team. Invite the leadership team members to discuss the importance of effective office communications and to consider how they communicate. Do they know, for example, that the components of communication are often surprising? When you deliver a message to an employee, the tone of your voice comprises 38 percent of the message, your body language constitutes 55 percent and the words you use represent a mere 7 percent of the message. So how you deliver the message is at least as important as the message itself. Ask the leadership team about their views about communications in your office and how they think they are doing in
- keeping employees informed,
- spending time with those they supervise, and
- developing the lawyers and staff they supervise.
Work as a team. You will need to bring together the various elements within the firm to create an environment that values effective communication. Start by developing a communication plan that includes everyone in your firm who has supervisory responsibility. A suggested communications action plan includes several key elements, each centered on an action step. For an in-depth description of the actions steps, why they are important and how to implement them, see the table at right.
- CREATE THE TEAMS
A team approach to improve office communications ensures commitment to the plan and encourages team members to work together on their individual plans for improvement. The legal supervisory team could be led by the managing partner or an administrative management team, and be comprised of practice group heads or committee heads responsible for associate reviews. The staff supervisory team could be led by the administrative manager, and be comprised of the functional managers responsible for supervising secretaries, accounting, library, administrative and other office-related workers. Hold preliminary meetings to introduce the subject of office communications and provide an opportunity to discuss whether the participants agree that a need for enhancement exists. Assuming that they do, a kick-off meeting introducing the communications plan will emphasize the importance of the goal and cement the commitment of each team to the overall goals of the firm.
- ASSESS WHAT WORKS AND WHAT DOESN’T
People who need to improve their communication skills often don’t realize how their style affects others, nor do they comprehend the various ways they cost the organization. They might be convinced if shown a new OfficeTeam survey that suggests that 29 percent of the respondents would likely leave their current positions if they didn’t feel appreciated by their managers.
Communications assessments are available to individuals online and are easy to do, yet they reveal a lot about communication skills. Some of the tools used by human resources professionals are available for free. Typically, an assessment evaluates how you respond to various scenarios to measure your self-awareness and how you handle situations with other people. Then, it suggests areas where you likely need improvement. Four types of assessments are listed in the table on page 47. In each case, there is a self-evaluation test, feedback on the results, and ideas for skills you and your team want to develop. We’ve also listed some inexpensive publications in the resources box (page 45) that can be purchased for your team to delve a bit deeper into the topic. The books allow access to an online test each team member can take to ascertain what he or she does well and what he or she may need to work on. The results can be kept private or be shared with others.
Let’s say you decide to use the emotional intelligence book and you score low on being socially aware. Seventeen strategies can be found in each section to tackle any shortcomings. For example, perhaps you aren’t good at listening; you get easily bored with what people are saying and find it hard to pay attention. Some simple skill development ideas are provided to help you. Each of the assessments available online offers a different approach to skill development.
- DEVELOP A TRAINING PLAN
The training plan should include specific communication skills you and your team have decided need improvement. An example is the need to improve the daily interaction between supervisors and staff. Lawyers and staff frequently say they don’t know what is happening in the firm, and they rarely interact with its leaders. Yet this need is so paramount that management literature is overflowing with tips on how to interact with employees.
A simple approach to address this need for interaction is to make sure that you and the team take a walk around the office at least once a week. The phrase “management by wandering around” (MBWA) refers to strolling around at random through the workplace to say hello to employees, inquire about how they are doing and listen to them. To get connected and stay connected, you need to walk around and talk to your fellow employees, work alongside them, ask questions and be there to help when needed. One of the benefits of MBWA is increased approachability, as others begin to see you as a person with whom they are familiar, and they will be more likely to tell you what’s going on. Some of the top leaders in the corporate world make sure they walk around often enough to know what is going on in their workplaces. Steve Jobs was famous for it.
Another communication skill you and your team can include in your training plan is encouraging and responding to feedback from others. The opportunity to provide constructive feedback occurs almost daily in the legal environment during the day-to-day work assignments and annually or semi-annually during performance evaluations. In a recent article, an associate noted that during her performance review, the evaluator spent 10 minutes acknowledging her achievements and the next 50 talking about how she needed to improve. Perhaps, rather than focusing on the negative, positive feedback could be offered, emphasizing the strengths of the person reviewed so that those strengths can be built upon and used to bring about improvements in other areas.
One way to develop better feedback skills is to engage professional speakers to provide guidance on the subject to lawyers in the firm. Law firms that have provided professional training report that the sessions can be an eye-opener to senior lawyers and group leaders. They also report that retention is enhanced when constructive, thoughtful feedback is provided, and asking for the associate’s feedback helps develop his or her skills.
A simple training plan would provide guidance in the areas you wish to develop as part of your firm’s communication plan. As an example, see the table to the right.
- MEASURE SUCCESS
There are two approaches to measuring success. First, you and your team could take the assessment test again and note improvements in your responses. This approach could be an ongoing process to foster long-term improvement. Second, you could create your own assessment questions by conducting a survey of your team. Questions could be asked about the frequency of MBWA, success of using the methods recommended at educational sessions or other questions relating to the skills you and your team are working on. Simple, free survey tools such as SurveyMonkey or Zoomerang can be used to measure the success of your communications skill improvement program. You could also consider an occasional survey on communications within your office to learn even more about what is important to employees in your work environment, and then develop additional action plans to address their comments.
After working through the action plans, it’s likely you and your team will note improvements in the skills that you sought to develop, with the added benefit of a boost in office morale. You’ll be convinced that communication skills that were once less than optimal can be recalibrated and honed—and it will be well worth the effort. The results will be better working relationships as well as improved recruitment and retention of lawyers who will benefit your firm well into the future.
“Management by Wandering About (MBWA),” mindtools.com/pages/article/newTMM_72.htm
Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves (TalentSmart, 2009)
StrengthsFinder 2.0, Tom Rath (Gallup Press, 2007)