September/October 2019

Taking the Lead

The Power of Difficult Conversations

Linda Klein and John Hinton IV

Everyone knows that homeownership brings both pleasures and chores. When the Hintons purchased their home, one of the selling points was its screened-in back porch. They love that feature. It is an outdoor haven for family meals, entertaining, games and the occasional weekend nap. However, when they bought the home, they did not realize the amount of maintenance the porch required. Left unattended, the porch accumulates a considerable amount of dirt, debris and pollen. Cleaning that porch is hard work. It is time-consuming, gets even old clothes quite dirty and exacerbates allergies for even those fairly resistant to pollen. However, the porch becomes unusable if they neglect to periodically perform this unpleasant task. At that point the cleaning is even more difficult and time-consuming. Indeed, some surfaces get so dirty that they can never be fully cleaned and have to be replaced.

Interpersonal Irritations Can Poison Your Firm

The interpersonal relationships within your law firm are like that porch. Over time, the “dirt” and “debris” builds up in those relationships. No one intends for this to occur, but it can begin with a single unresolved issue. Frustrations among co-workers build up over differences of opinion and unmet expectations. Harsh words are spoken, colleagues act selfishly, and conflicts remain unresolved. There are the slights, real and perceived. No one in your firm is unaffected by this internal cultural grime. Everyone in some manner and to some degree is the cause of, and recipient of, this cultural grime. Everyone.

The problem is that when we fail to address these conflicts, relationships continue to deteriorate over time. They do not resolve themselves, any more than that porch cleans itself. However, failing to address the interpersonal tensions in your law firm leads to consequences that are much more damaging and consequential than having an unusable back porch. They tear at the culture and cohesiveness of your firm, which ultimately impacts your firm’s bottom line because of inefficiencies and lost opportunities. The problem is not that people spent their time fighting and arguing. Instead, the problem is that people don’t spend their time dealing with colleagues with whom their relationship is strained or broken. Such co-workers do not spend their time cooperating and collaborating for the benefit of your firm and its clients.

Talking It Out In the Open

Think of proactively addressing internal conflicts as part of the maintenance necessary for your law firm’s culture to thrive. Addressing interpersonal conflict is never easy or pleasant. It’s hard work. It requires having difficult conversations with co-workers—open, honest and constructive dialogue aimed at resolving these conflicts within the firm. The natural tendency of most people is to avoid these conversations. They take time. They require empathy and humility. They may cause you to hear points of view that you would rather not hear. Indeed, you may have to admit that you have contributed to the problem and apologize. You may not resolve the conflict. Let’s be honest: Very few of us excel at having these conversations in our personal lives, much less our professional lives.

Part of the reason that we do not excel at these conversations is the fact that, at a certain level, they are avoidable. So typically they are avoided. And the problems are never addressed. Although it is unlikely that your law firm will fail over these matters, the culture and the bottom line will suffer.

No one likes to be on the receiving side of such a conversation. They are tough on one’s pride and ego. However, when done correctly between people of goodwill, both sides grow, differences are often resolved, and relationships are strengthened for the benefit of the firm.

Moving Forward

Consider the following points for why it would benefit your firm to develop a culture where these conversations can occur—or, better yet, where they are expected to occur.

  • Difficult conversations are where conflicts are resolved. There will always be conflicts among people in your firm. It’s human nature. But how many conflicts could be resolved in your firm through people earnestly sitting down to discuss their differences? Unresolved conflicts are a cancer in your firm’s culture. Slights, insults and wrongdoing—real or perceived—break down trust, cohesion and productivity.
  • Difficult conversations can reduce uncertainty and miscommunication among your team. When people know that conflicts and issues will be addressed, they know where they stand with their colleagues. It eliminates a host of issues that can arise when people are left to wonder whether unspoken conflict exists. This builds trust, which allows people to focus on collaborative work.
  • It starts with you. Open the door for others to have tough conversations with you. As a leader, you should set the example. If your colleagues cannot speak with you in an open and honest manner without fear of retribution, then they will not tell you truths that you need to hear. Don’t fool yourself into believing that such conversations don’t need to occur. Set the tone that people who come to you with their disagreements in a respectful and constructive manner will receive an open audience.

We encourage you to look for ways to encourage and facilitate a culture at your firm where differences are resolved rather than allowed to fester. These conversations are opportunities to pursue rather than difficulties to avoid.

Linda Klein is a past president of the ABA and senior managing shareholder at Baker Donelson. She is a frequent speaker on law practice, construction and higher education law. 

John Hinton IV is a shareholder in Baker Donelson’s Atlanta office. His practice focuses on commercial litigation and construction law.