Speak softly and carry a big stick

13131354_SPresident Theodore Roosevelt uttered the phrase, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”  This saying has relevance as it relates to law firm management.

There can often be a tendency on the part of a law firm to want to change people.  For example, many law firm managers think they can turn an employee with a poor work ethic into a good work ethic by speaking loudly (or openly) as to the issue.  Others think they can turn an employee with a negative attitude into a positive attitude by speaking openly with them about it through sit-down meetings, mentorship, training, self-help recordings and other candid communication.

This natural tendency to want to change people makes sense.  It is based on the idea of compassion.  It’s based on a viewpoint that law firm managers have the ability to make an impact, make somebody better and more productive in the work place.  Who wouldn’t want to believe this could work?

While this is with all the best of intentions, this is rarely a pathway of long-term management success for employees who fall significantly below the desired standards.  There might be times where an employer can make an employee mildly better (even if just temporarily).  Some employees can also be taught how to smooth out their rough edges.  For example, some employees can taught to be more efficient.  Other employees, over time, might be able to mature through real world experience.  But these employees truly have to desire to improve.

The reality, however, is that if an employee has a fatal deficit (like not wanting to work hard, show up on time, perform good work, be positive and upbeat about their job, etc.), words, mentorship, training and other measures are rarely going to turn an employee like this around.   An employer can use their words to try to convince an employee, plead with them or persuade them to do better.  But these words almost always result in wasted effort and can result in bigger problems down the line.

Some employees might even resent the compassionate attempts a law firm might make to make them better.  Versus taking it constructively, the employee might even misinterpret it, become skeptical of the law firm’s intentions (even when noble) and reject the good faith attempts.

This is where there is great wisdom in the words of President Roosevelt.  It’s almost always better to speak softly and carry a big stick in these situations (versus speaking loudly and carrying a small stick).  Yes, a law firm should make some good faith attempts to try to mentor employees, better them and help them mature.  But when these initial attempts don’t work, and the employee doesn’t desire to better themselves as it relates to critical job requirements, a law firm shouldn’t feel like they’ve failed when the employee doesn’t want to be helped.

In these situations, the law firm has to move on by getting an employee in the position who truly has the desire to be a solid contributor (in place of the employee who has no such desire).

If you have any comments, feel free to share them below.

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