Within the past week, I’ve had conversations with partners in three different law firms who were all struggling with problems of employee motivation, complacency and lack of initiative. In each case, the managing partners felt that the crux of the problem was the employees themselves (whether those employees were lawyers or other staff members). They all said things like, “Why don’t they take initiative? Why is this place a ghost town after 5 p.m.? Why is it that no one seems to go the extra mile? Why are my employees seemingly sleepwalking through the day?”
I’d suggest (as I did to each of these managing partners) that the place to begin looking for answers isn’t the employees – it’s the leadership and management of the firm: the partners themselves. Is leadership the source of the problem? Are firm leaders contributing to it?
The natural first reaction is to become defensive: “We pay these people. They should feel lucky they even have a job.” What are you really trying to accomplish here? If you think that is an attitude that is actually going to result in grateful employees or be a catalyst for positive change, think again. It may even have the opposite effect on those who were actually happy to be working and who want to do better. If you have consistently underperforming employees or people you should have fired long ago because they never do what they are supposed to do, the answer isn’t to complain about their performance – it is to replace them with employees who are capable of doing the job.
But what about employees who may have cared at one point but who have become complacent, employees who have gotten sloppy or who seem to have lost any kind of spark in their work? Veiled threats about potential job loss might make you feel better, but they certainly aren’t going to make your employees more loyal or make them work harder for you – it’s more likely to make them resent you. And it will place their focus on simply doing what they need to do to keep their job, rather than doing anything extra. They’ll perform their job description but not contribute anything else. Is that really what you want?
Your employees work to earn their paycheck. Why should they do any more than they are already doing? And in this economy, if you are cutting their benefits, downsizing their perks, extending their hours or otherwise expecting more, they need to see a reason to dive in and help. Simply trying to keep the firm afloat is not enough. If you want more, it’s your job to motivate them to give more.
If you really want to solve the problem and get those employees to change, you need to look at yourself first. What are you doing to motivate your employees? What are you doing to ensure that they have the tools and guidance necessary to perform their jobs well?
If you want to raise the bar and get your employees motivated and challenged to perform their best work, you need to see the situation from the perspective of the employee. If you want to get someone to do something for you, they need to see how it will benefit them.
It’s easier to work hard when you know what you are working hard for. Do you encourage employees to set goals, and help them to develop professionally? Do they have opportunities to grow, to learn new skills or work with new people?
One of the questions on the survey I mentioned above asked whether employees had individual professional goals. The firm was surprised that the response was not 100% yes. Why didn’t the employees have goals? When I asked the firm whether they ever discussed employees’ goals, suggested goals or helped them to set goals, they said no. Where is the mystery?
In my experience, most law firms run their practices on a ‘need to know’ basis. Very little information is shared with non-equity partners, let alone associates or staff. This results in a great deal of disconnection. Employees who feel disconnected from their firms are unlikely to go the extra mile. While I’m not suggesting that every employee of the firm should be apprised of everything about the operation and finances of the firm, most firms could benefit from a greater flow of information.
In addition to greater communication about general firm matters and client engagements, increased communication about individual performance – both good and bad - can reap rewards in motivation and employee engagement. Do your employees receive regular, constructive feedback at the time their work is performed, or do you leave it for a once yearly review (or no review at all)?
When firms wonder why their lawyers or employees don’t have an ‘ownership mentality,’ I immediately ask whether those firms treat their attorneys and staff as employees or as owners. Do they micromanage, or do they give employees responsibility for projects or tasks and allow them to determine how they will accomplish them? Are employees treated as if they have a stake in the firm, or are they treated as replaceable robots, there to simply do a job and not ask questions?
If you want employees to ‘take ownership’ of a problem or of their work product, take responsibility by doing what needs to be done without being asked, you have to give them permission to act like owners. Of course, in order to take responsibility or ownership of a problem, an employee has to feel as if they have the information they need (or at least access to the information they need) in order to solve the problem in the first place.
When was the last time you asked your employees what they needed, whether they felt they received good instructions or sufficient guidance to perform their work? I recently performed an employee study for a law firm who was skeptical about whether the survey would yield any meaningful responses or results. When the results came in and the employees made comments and suggestions for improvement, the firm’s first reaction was, “why didn’t they tell us before?” The answer is another breakdown in communication: nobody ever asked, and the employees felt that either the partnership was ‘too busy’ to listen to them or didn’t value their input.
Are your employees given discrete tasks, with no background or context? Do they understand how their work fits into the overall work of the firm, or how their tasks contribute to the whole? In many cases, the answer is no – again, leading to disconnection. When an employee knows how important their task is to accomplishing the overall goal, they’re more likely to be ‘invested’ in their work product.
When law firm managers complain to me that their employees are not appreciative and do not take initiative, I ask them whether they think their employees feel appreciated. Have those who are appreciative or taken initiative been rewarded in the past (and I’m not just talking about monetary compensation)?
Studies have shown that when managers can ‘catch people doing something right’ obtain instant results – employees respond to positive motivation. To increase employee initiative, involvement and commitment, consider what will make your employees want to come to work, get excited about doing their best every day.
I’ve often heard lawyers complain that their clients don’t appreciate the work they do for them, even when the client pays the bills with no problem. Why do lawyers expect appreciation for their work if they don’t believe their employees deserve appreciation?
On the occasions when a client goes out of their way to express appreciation, whether it’s a simple acknowledgement on the telephone or a grander gesture like a thank you card, what is the effect on your future work for that client? How does that expression of gratitude make you feel about that client? Are you likely to work harder for that client than you are for your other clients?
Particularly in a service industry like law, the way you treat your employees translates into the way you treat your clients. Unhappy employees make for unhappy clients. But employees who receive appreciation and thanks are just as likely to raise the bar on their work as you are for an appreciative client. If for no other reason, then, law firms should treat their employees well so their employees will treat clients well. The simple fact of the matter is that everyone wants to be appreciated.
In short, if you want your employees to give more to you and your firm, start by giving more to them, not in compensation, but in helping them develop professionally by setting goals and laying out expectations, communicating well, giving employees responsibility, providing ongoing feedback and expressing your appreciation.
(photo credit: http://flic.kr/p/5Gmnsv)