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.
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.