Law Firm Leadership: Creating a Culture Where People Do What They Say
August 2012 | Survival Guide for Young Lawyers: Taking Charge of Your Career
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Law Firm Leadership: Creating a Culture Where People Do What They Say

By Rich Goldstein

How often does it happen that you ask someone to do something and it doesn't get done?  You might follow up with them, and hear some reasons why it hasn't been done.  Perhaps the reasons make sense, so you let it go. Or maybe the reasons don’t make sense and you lose trust.  You might be upset about it, but because of the culture in the firm there isn't a good way to handle that upset.  And regardless of whether you let it go or are upset about it, the fact still is, something you wanted to happen didn’t happen!

You have been wondering if there is a better way to have people do what they say, so that the things that are important to you actually get done.

We've all seen and tried so many ideas, systems, techniques, incentives, etc., that seek to foster accountability—to get people to do what they agree to do.  Unfortunately these techniques don’t usually work very well.  They are probably most effective at helping us keep track of and follow through on our own commitments.  But when it comes to getting other people to deliver, they don’t work well because they miss the point.

When we want to “get people to do what they agree to do,” we usually focus on improving the “get people to do” part.  The problem is, it is really hard to motivate people to do anything they weren’t fully committed to doing from the beginning!

The real problem is not any lack of skill or motivation for people to follow through on commitments in general; it’s that most of these so-called commitments were made in circumstances that make them weak commitments at best.  And it's the weakness of the commitment itself that results in the poor follow-through.  The more we focus on trying to improve people’s follow through, the more we ignore the real problem—most of these ‘commitments’ were doomed from the beginning!

Think about it.  Do you think these same people have trouble following through on things they consider very important?  Some of them might be really committed to their family, and never fail on a family commitment.  Others might be committed to their exercise routine, and never miss their morning jog.  So it’s not that they can’t follow through, it’s that something makes them less inclined to follow through on the “commitments” they make to you!

The key then is to make sure the commitments they make to you are as real to them as any other important commitment in their life.  To make their commitments to us solid and real, we need to change our focus.  In the phrase "get people to do what they agree to do," then, we need to focus more on the "what they agree to do" part.

The best way to do this is to adopt a system for making clear requests of others, and a system for responding to those requests that naturally leads to strong commitments.  To work effectively, this system needs to become part of the firm culture.

The system I’m proposing here has two components:

  1. Making Clear Requests: When you make the request, it must include clear conditions for satisfaction, including specifying what exactly you would like them to do and by when you require performance.  A vague request (e.g., “Can you help me with this motion?”) does not create a commitment.  Instead: “I have a request.  Will you proof-read my draft of this motion, tracking whatever changes you make, and give it back to me by tomorrow 10AM?”

  2. Providing Choice: The person to whom you are making the request must be clear that they have a choice about how to respond.  If they don’t feel they have a choice, you will never get a real commitment from them, probably only a sense of obligation!

So within this system, perhaps the most critical part is that the person who responds to your requests must know that he or she has options for how to respond.  This makes all the difference if you want people who agree to things out loud, to actually commit to them internally.

To obtain a full commitment from someone when you make a request of them, you want them to feel they have options for responding.  I’ll go through the four (4) options briefly, and then we'll talk about them in further detail:

Option 1: Accept the request. ("Yes.")

Option 2: Decline the request. ("No.")

Option 3: Make a counter offer (or renegotiate) the request. ("How about this…")

Option 4: Request further information, and agree to have a response by a certain time. ("I'll get back to you by Thursday with an answer.")

When people first hear of this, they are usually surprised by this concept of providing choices.  After their surprise, their immediate thought is, “You mean people can say ‘no’ to my request?  I’m not sure if I like that!”  This is precisely why this is so important.  If people don’t know that they can decline a request, they will cleverly endeavor to make a weak commitment with an escape clause (more on this later).

It is not surprising then that many people wonder, "Should I really implement a system that allows people to decline my requests?  I mean, is it a good idea to give my employees the option to decline my requests?"  This is certainly a fair concern.  The reality is, they will rarely say no, but just knowing they can decline your request will make them more committed to you and what you want.  It will strengthen their relationship with you and their respect of you as a leader. You will have a team of loyal, committed, and empowered people.

When your employees and colleagues know they can say no, you will get some of the most committed, most powerful “yeses” that you have ever gotten—ones you can really rely on.

The follow-through rate on commitments made by people who know they have other options will be greater than anything you have ever seen!  You might notice that they do even more than is requested of them.  Because not only will you have people only agreeing to things that work for them, and actually fit into their schedule and along with their other commitments, but they will consider it to be their own choice to have made that commitment.

When people feel that that THEY have chosen a certain action, commitment, or accountability, they feel a personal sense of responsibility or ownership for it.  They will put their whole self behind fulfilling that commitment.

On the other hand, when people feel a requirement was imposed upon them, they often feel victimized by it.  People who feel victimized by their job—by you, by the case they are working on, or whatever they feel they are being ‘forced to do‘ —will often do the bare minimum, look for an opportunity to be ‘off the hook,’ and be ready to point the finger when things don’t go well.

To make sure we are headed in the right direction by adopting this system and creating this culture, let’s look again at the alternative.  Too often, when people don't know that they can say no, they'll give a non-committal answer—something like, "I'll try," or "I think so," or "Yeah, that sounds like it's possible."  So, in the end, they might say the word 'yes,' but if you pay attention to them as they are saying it—you watch their tone, their body language, and perhaps other things they are saying, it’s clear they don't really believe that “yes.”  Thus it is not what I would call a congruent yes.  If you tuned in to the situation in this way, you could almost feel them metaphorically crossing their fingers behind their back as they gave you their “promise.”  They found a way to leave an escape for themselves.  Whatever it was, it was enough to justify telling themselves, “I‘m not really going to do this.”  It may been unspoken, but it's very much there for them!

So once again, this is where relationships between the parties, and the culture of the firm, play a role.  If you want to have powerful "yeses"—and powerful commitments that result in the actions you want—it’s important that anyone to whom you make a request knows they have these four options available to them.

Let's talk a bit more about those response options. Say, for example, that you speak the following request to one of your colleagues:

"I have a request.  Will you generate a weekly report for me about how many new telephone calls we receive at the firm from potential clients, and their outcome, and deliver it to me every Friday at noon?"

Here's where the four options come into play.  The person to whom you make the request could potentially respond in one of the following ways:

Option 1: "Yes, I accept your request." 
If the other person chooses to unequivocally follow your instructions—it works for that person to generate that report every week and deliver it to you on Friday, then he or she can simply say, "Yes, I accept your request."

Option 2: "No, I decline your request." 
If it doesn't work for the person to do what you request, he or she can say, "No, I decline your request."  And once again, it's very important for everyone to understand that this is an option if you want to avoid "yeses" that are really "nos."  Realistically, the conversation won’t end here.  You’ll probably want to know why they are declining, and they will likely feel compelled to give an explanation (even if you are not asking for one).  But if the conversation does continue, and you explore their reasons for declining your request, it is important that it is done in a way that doesn’t negate their empowerment to decline, and still has them feel safe to be honest with you.  For example, you might say: “Got it.  And thank you for being honest with me that that my request wouldn’t work for you.”  And then perhaps: “Is there a particular part of my request that is problematic for you?” or “Is it the timing?  If I gave you more time to complete it, would my request work better for you?”

Option 3: "I have a counter offer."
(Or, "Let's renegotiate your request.")  For example, the person might say, "I love the idea of this report. Will it work for you if I do it biweekly? That would then give me the option to do something else that's important on the other Friday mornings."  And then, of course, the negotiation can continue from there until you both hit on a request that works for both of you.

Option 4: "I need some more information before I can answer."
(Or, "I'll get back to you on that.")  This response would go something like this: "I'm not sure. I don't know if I can get the data together every single week like that. It's going to be a matter of whether Mary is available on Thursdays to export the data from our CRM system that I would need to give you your report."  And then your response would be something like, "Okay. When can you give me your answer to my request?"  And the other person would say, "I’ll talk to Mary, and I'll let you know by 3PM tomorrow."  To which you could say, "Perfect. That works for me."

Now imagine having such an accountability system as part of your firm's culture.  What if the culture was such that people in your firm made clear requests of each other, and allowed others to say no, renegotiate, or set a follow-up time to provide an answer?  How might this allow people to give a yes that is unequivocal, fully committed, and can be counted on? How might it improve the follow-through rate? Most of all, how might this system have an impact on your ability to trust that people will actually do what they say?

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About the Author

Rich Goldstein, a registered patent attorney, has run IP boutique Goldstein Patent Law for nearly two decades, and has obtained more than 1500 patents for his clients.  Rich has also led business, sales, and personal growth workshops and trainings to thousands of people. He is passionate about learning, achieving, and helping others achieve success and happiness.  He enjoys writing about what he has discovered to work best on his personal blog

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