Tuesday Tip: Working with Support Staff

Every working relationship is different, and it can be frustrating when the work you delegate to others doesn’t get done as well or as quickly as you’d like. Often, whether you’re a law firm partner, a mid-level associate or a brand-new attorney, it’s easy to blame problems on the staff or how they are working. But consider that the solution isn’t to change what your staff is doing – maybe the solution is to make a change in how you approach working with your staff.

Here are three tips for working more effectively with your support staff:

1. Stand in their shoes

Take a step back and look at the task or issue from the perspective of your staff, rather than focusing on just getting work off of your plate. Staff are people, too! Treat them the way you would like to be treated.

When something goes wrong, don’t be quick to point the finger at your staff – instead, think about how you might have contributed to the problem. Did you give them work at the last minute? Set an unrealistic expectation about how long it would take to complete a task or project? Fail to provide them with the information or resources they needed to perform the task as expected?

Do better next time by asking yourself questions like:

  • How are the circumstances different for your staff than they are for you?
  • What do you know that they don’t know?
  • What education do you have that your support staff doesn’t?
  • What resources might your staff need to make it easier to get the job done?
  • Who else is that staff person working for and what other obligations do they have?
  • What time constraints or other outside factors may be getting in their way or influencing their ability to get things done? How can you help minimize or eliminate the effect of those other factors?
  • How much time will it really take (recognizing that it may take them longer to do a task than it would take you, or it may be their first time completing this task)?
  • What does their day look like?

Doing this exercise can be eye-opening. It can reveal hidden obstacles to getting work done. When you take into account your staff’s entire day and the other demands on their time, you may realize that you need to alter your expectations, get additional help, or give your staff better instructions or resources. But don’t just leave it there – take the conversation to your staff to get their perspective.

2. Be a team player

You and your staff are a team. Instead of just passing work off or treating them like a dumping ground, approach tasks and projects with a collaborative mindset. Sit down and talk to your staff about how you can help to make them more successful. Do they need better equipment? More training? More opportunity to ask questions? How do they prefer to receive their information – do they respond better to written instructions or lists as opposed to oral explanations?

What part of the project might you undertake so that they can do the rest? How can you provide them with the resources they need? If you are asking them rearranging their priorities to get something done for you, what can you do to help them meet their other obligations? For example, if they will be skipping lunch to get your work out the door, offer to buy them lunch or let them leave an hour early. Take another task off of their plate so they can focus on the task you think is most important.

3.  Show your appreciation

You can’t be successful without your support staff, so show them that you appreciate what they do for you. As one of my clients said to me recently, “A simple thank-you goes a long way.” Applaud their efforts, even when they are imperfect (remember – you aren’t perfect either, and everyone makes mistakes). Not only will this make your staff feel good, but they’re likely to want to do an even better job for you.

Don’t limit all of your conversations to work-related issues – show that you care about them as a person. Inquire about their families, their vacations, their weekends, and their hobbies. It doesn’t take much time or money to show someone that you care about them. Give a handwritten thank-you. Send them flowers. Give a favorite book or a gift certificate for a night out with their spouse.

These are three easy steps that any attorney can do to improve their relationship with their support staff.

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