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Being Little Is A Big Problem

Creating a collaborative team and generating loyalty to the firm and your clients isn't rocket science. At this point, I hope I don't have to convince you that leaders are not born, they're made. (Good news, this goes for lawyers, too!) With the right attention, instruction, opportunity, and repetition, anyone can grow their ability to be a leader, to inspire others, and to foster an environment that rewards taking care of each other as much as taking care of our clients. It doesn't have to be complicated, but one of the ways we undermine our efforts to lead is to be small.

Being small means cutting others down, undermining their confidence or their accomplishments, and, generally, putting them in the shade in the hopes of putting ourselves in a better light. In the end everyone loses.


I recently listened to Adam Grant's interview of Kaya Kallas, Prime Minister of Estonia. One of her comments about competition really struck me. She said pulling others down because you feel small doesn't make you a bigger person; you stay small. And when you do that as the team leader -- the lead counsel; the senior partner; the practice group manager; the law firm leadership team -- you not only stay small, you also undermine your team's ability to grow.


When you pull others down, you discourage trust, commitment, loyalty, respect, cooperation, and effort. Yes, even lawyers are susceptible to being pulled down. And in a business that relies on trust, communication, and collaboration, creating an environment that discourages these things diminishes efficiency, client service, employee well-being, and ultimately client service.


What does this look like? Most of us would say we easily see others being small. When others compliment someone's success as being lucky rather than being the result of skill and effort. When "feedback" is criticism rather than critique. When we see faults but fail to see contributions. Being small is often about the little things, and the little things add up.


Over time, your team will tire of living and working in a negative, unsupportive environment. But the good news is that change can be simple. It can be just as small -- and just as meaningful -- as the actions that are undermining your teams cohesiveness, collaboration, and trust. Change starts with awareness and accountability.


Most people who engage in 'small behaviors' don't realize they're doing it. The first step is to realize you're doing it. And if you're seeing this in someone else, you need to help them see what they're doing. Two simple options for creating awareness are introspection and 360 degree reviews. Introspection is most useful with a trusted partner to ask questions to lead that self-discovery and to help hold a mirror up to ourselves. This can be a challenging exercise because it requires we start from a position of curiosity about ourselves and an interest in growing as leaders. We have to actually believe we have something to learn. 360 degree reviews don't require the same level of introspective effort, but they do require trust. The people around us on whom we will rely for honest feedback need to trust that their input will be taken seriously, used for our growth, and not used against them. Sharing your intent to use their feedback for your professional growth can help create the trust that can lead to better awareness of how you are doing as a leader.


Awareness creates the opportunity to change our behaviors, and having someone to help us be accountable for that change makes the process of developing and sticking to a plan easier. Recognizing where our challenges are -- e.g., in giving feedback; acknowledging success; criticizing colleagues; etc. -- gives us the opportunity to choose discrete actions to focus on changing just a little bit. Those changes might cost us no extra time, or just a few extra seconds of conversation. They will require a little extra attention. But the payoff will be significant.


If you're worried that you might be being small, feel free to reach out and we can talk about how to know and what you can do differently. If you see your team being small, we can talk about what a workshop or training series might look like to help shift the culture.


No matter how you choose to address the small in your practice or firm, know that it matters and that it can change.

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