The ability as a lawyer to develop high trust professional relationships quickly and reliably may not be a topic you have thought about much. It’s something we take for granted.
Presumably, when we were young, we learned to get along with other people.
Nevertheless, a not inconsiderable amount of my work with lawyers involves interventions in which there is a lack of high trust among professionals.
This deficit manifests itself in many ways. Sometimes there is chronic friction, or even outright hostility. Other times, people avoid contact with each other and limit their communication to terse emails. Additional “symptoms” can include low morale, high turnover, failure to share necessary information, hoarding work, poor client interactions, physical and psychological ailments and so forth. The symptoms are varied, but ultimately it’s about low trust.
Essential elements of high trust relationships
I have found that five relatively simple behaviours correlate with the formation and maintenance of high trust professional relationships in the practice of law: interaction, disclosure, flexibility, consistency and good intentions.
The type of interaction that creates high trust professional relationships is that which occurs appropriately, frequently and is of a high quality.
It must happen often enough that you can both rely on having an ongoing dialogue.
The highest quality interactions are, of course, face-to-face, as these involve not only verbal content, but also facial expressions, body language, tone of voice and so forth. It’s not essential to always have face-to-face interaction, but it is essential that you do so often enough that it sets the tone for your telephone conversations, email correspondence, and other communications.
You need to invest ongoing time and energy to build high trust professional relationships. The occasional “big thump” won’t work.
An excellent way to erode trust is to fail to share critical information with someone else who is then surprised to learn this information indirectly.
Count on it; even if you’ve had a relatively high level of trust in the past, this will undermine it. Conversely, if you share appropriate information with others and explain how this information impacts them, you will be building a high trust relationship.
You don’t have to “spill the beans” with everyone, you just have to give people the information they need to make informed decisions about themselves, their work and their role in the workplace.
Recently a solicitor described his managing partner as a “my way or the highway kind of person”. It was not a flattering description.
Flexibility that contributes to high trust means acknowledging that you can successfully accomplish things in various ways and being open minded when you collaborate.
You don’t need to compromise excellence, but truly many roads often do lead to Rome. Try tailoring your interactions with others to accommodate their interests, capabilities and perspectives and they will appreciate it. Listen to them, consider their suggestions, critically evaluate your approaches and together decide how to proceed.
This is flexibility and it’s important whether you are drafting, negotiating, making management decisions, interacting with a client or really anything else.
Consistency over time
We all intuitively know how important it is for parents to be consistent in raising children. If children are greeted with love and support on one occasion and then later inexplicably experience anger and rejection, they may develop low levels of trust with others.
Adults are much the same. It’s important to be consistent in your relationships with other people and to do so over time. Building trust is cumulative and iterative.
Interaction, disclosure, flexibility and consistency will not alone build a high trust professional relationship unless good intentions are part of the mix.
You must genuinely seek positive outcomes, want to support the success of others and be a good team player. Merely paying lip service to good intentions is insufficient, especially if your actions are at odds with what you say. If that occurs, you will be perceived as a hypocrite. Hypocrisy and high trust are at opposite ends of the same spectrum.
Trust can be destroyed quickly and abruptly. I expect you may have experienced this in a professional or personal context.
Conversely, building a high trust relationship usually occurs slowly and incrementally, based on multiple small and seemingly inconsequential interactions. When you’re building high trust relationships you will find that the quality of your communication, your ability to collaborate with others and the “ease” that you experience in your work with clients and colleagues will increase gradually over time.
Clearly, it’s important to get along well with the people in your office. Consistently successful lawyers do this and they make it look easy. They know what they need to know to get things done, they share that information appropriately with others, their colleagues seek their advice on important matters and they apparently navigate their professional (and likely personal) lives with less “friction”.
Similarly, when interacting with clients, referral sources, colleagues outside of the office and other external “constituents”, these same individuals are noticeably successful.
Their clients like and respect them, they get more than their fair share of referrals and they have comfortable relationships with colleagues, including those with whom they have adversarial professional relationships. They know how to cultivate high trust professional relationships and they do it as naturally as breathing.
Trust and hierarchies
Sue Blair, of Personality Dynamics in Auckland, has developed what she refers to as the “Trust Triple Halo Infinity Loop”. It’s brilliant and it looks like three horizontal haloes placed at the top, middle and bottom of a figure 8.
The top halo represents senior management, the middle halo, mid-level employees/managers and the bottom, lower level/junior employees.
The figure “8” indicates that the levels are linked. If there is a breakdown of trust at any one or more “halo levels”, there will be a failure of trust at all three levels.
For example, if the senior partners don’t trust each other, there will be low trust within and between all three groups. Conversely, if there are high levels of trust within each of the groups, there will be high levels of trust among all of them.
So, pay attention to what is happening at all levels of your office.
Don’t assume, for example, that if there is friction among the partners, that the other employees won’t notice it. They will be acutely aware of it and it will adversely impact how they get along with each other, with the partners and with external constituents such as clients.
If trust levels are low, it’s more difficult to get work done efficiently and effectively and clients notice that. Conversely, a “well oiled”, high trust organisation provides consistently excellent and profitable client service.
Endless malleability of human relationships
Fortunately, even if trust levels are low within a group, this can change.
The catalyst for change typically occurs when one or more people choose to adjust how they interact with their colleagues. Sometimes it’s a senior manager and sometimes it’s an entry level employee.
Any one of us can choose to engage in behaviours that will increase trust levels. It tends to have a consistently predictable ripple effect within a human system. Maybe it will be you that sets the ripple in motion.
How might you change the ways you interact with others to enhance trust levels?
Start making some small adjustments, such as communicating more frequently face-to-face, keeping people more fully informed, being more open-minded about how things get done, checking your own good intentions, and doing all of this regularly. Develop some good new habits. Take a leadership role. Notice how others respond. Celebrate success.
Emily Morrow provides tailored consulting services for legal professionals. www.emilymorrow.com