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Law Practice Magazine


Finding Out What They Don’t Want to Tell You

Linda A Klein and John Hinton IV


  • Leaders are urged to be mindful of how their responses and actions can impact employees’ willingness to communicate openly.
  • Younger lawyers may avoid difficult conversations with their bosses, opting for job changes instead.
  • Leaders are recommended to go beyond formal surveys and actively engage with team members.
Finding Out What They Don’t Want to Tell You

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A young attorney whom we mentor told us that several of her peers had recently left their law firms. Many of the concerns that led her colleagues to leave seemed not only resolvable but the same types of issues that they were likely to encounter in their new firms. When we asked whether her departed colleagues had discussed their concerns with their firms prior to leaving, our young friend said that none of them had done so. We knew that she had discussed concerns to her bosses several times with some success, so we asked why she thought her peers had not done the same. Her answer was quite matter of fact: “Most people of my generation are not going to take the time to have those conversations. It’s much easier to find another firm than have confrontations, and there are plenty of opportunities out there.”

Although the desire to avoid difficult conversations is not unique to her generation, it may be true that they are more predisposed to such avoidance, and it certainly seems to us that opportunities for associates to change jobs are greater than in the past. Regardless, our protégé was reminding us that employees typically do not tell their bosses much of what they need to know when it comes to their job satisfaction. We all ignore that reminder at our peril.

How do we improve our chances that those whom we lead will communicate their concerns to us? Here are three suggestions.

Recognize the Power Dynamics

Authority always carries with it a built-in power imbalance that will affect the degree of candor that others have with you. The people who report to you (directly or indirectly) will naturally feel the need to be guarded in their communications with you. Respond to them in a harsh or dismissive tone, and they will shut down the communication that you need to hear. The same goes true with ignoring or not following through on addressing legitimate concerns. The person whom you think is a content employee may be quietly biding their time until the right opportunity to exit occurs. Although paranoia is not productive, a healthy recognition that people whom you lead will not always tell you what is bothering them is necessary.

Perform a Self-Assessment

Be willing to honestly answer tough questions about yourself. Are you approachable? Are you available? How do you respond to information that may call into question your own performance? Can you disagree with someone without shutting them down? Do you have a reputation for keeping other’s confidences? Do people believe that you have their best interest at heart? Better yet, ask a trusted friend to answer these questions for you. True friends will care enough to tell you the truth if you ask them to do so.

Perform the Necessary Front-End Work

We have all had a valuable team member come into our office, close the door and give us that uncomfortable look. We know that means our colleague is about to leave the firm. It is very rare that the employment relationship can be salvaged at that point—your team member mentally left the firm long before walking into your office.

Instead, you must till the soil and plant the seeds on the front end. Although anonymous surveys and 360-degree reviews have their place, they are not sufficient by themselves. Tell the people who report to you that you know that no firm or person (including you) is perfect and that they are going to have concerns and frustrations from time to time. Tell them that you cannot promise to resolve every issue to their full satisfaction, but that you want to hear their concerns and do your best to resolve them. Tell them also that there will be no retribution for their candor even if it involves you. Then prove their skepticism wrong when they take you up on your offer. Moreover, make it a point to proactively seek out their feedback and concerns. Try an informal lunch––your treat.

You won’t prevent every frustrated employee from leaving your firm, but you will keep more of them and turn unfulfilled employees into more satisfied and productive employees if you create an environment where they can communicate candidly with you. Good luck.