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The Most Effective Way to Have Your Concerns Heard

I previously posted on why employees who complain may be the most valuable assets in your organization. In this post I am going to look at the other side of that equation, how to raise concerns effectively.

As I noted in the other post, most people don’t like to hear negative feedback. Leaders often avoid or marginalize people who raise concerns. They label them “whiners”. So, how can you effectively raise your concerns in a way that produces good results?

One of my favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell, has a series of podcasts called Revisionist History. You can find them on here. In the episode “Generous Orthodoxy”, Gladwell examines why some protest movements succeed while others fail. Through a series of examples, Gladwell concludes that if you want your protests (your complaints) to be heard, you have convince the power structure that you care deeply about the organization. That is, you have to give the leadership some clear signal that you are invested and care about the organization so that the leadership knows your criticism is well intended.

Of course, in Originals, Adam Grant noted that people are rarely motivated to complaint UNLESS they already are committed to the organization so it safe to assume that most protesters do care. What Gladwell is highlighting, though, is that you cannot assume that leadership understands your commitment. You have to make it clear to them.

In my last post I pointed out that law firm leaders should appreciate when people raise complaints because it shows those people are committed to the firm. On the other side, if you have a complaint about your firm it is crucial that you make your commitment to the firm clear – before raising the complaint. How you frame your complaint is crucial.

For example, compare these two approaches. Assume that an associate is concerned that he is not getting enough client contact and mentoring on business development. The associate is concerned that he will not make partner if he doesn’t start developing his own book of business. The associate asks to meet with the managing partner. Too often the conversation sounds something like this:

The firm needs to do more to help me build a book of business. I need more help in this area. What else can you offer me to help me get my own clients?

The complaint here might be valid, but firm leaders often have a hard time understanding the validity because it is all couched in the negative. More often they respond to this type of engagement with their own complaints about how demanding this generation of lawyers has become and “no one handed me business” types of responses.

Now consider the same complaint presented with some initial framing that makes clear the associate’s commitment to the firm:

I really appreciate working at this firm and want to stay here for the long haul. I feel like truly contributing to the financial success of the firm entails building my own book of business and I need help making that happen. The firm needs to do more to help me build a book of business. I need more help in this area. What else can you offer me to help me get my own clients?

The gist of the complaint is the same but once the associate makes clear he is committed to the firm and its success, the rest of the complaint loses its confrontational edge. Resolving the complaint becomes mutually beneficial.

So, how you raise your complaints may have a huge impact on whether they get addressed. You cannot assume that leaders understand your commitment to the organization when you raise your concerns. Making that commitment clear has a huge impact on how firm leaders are likely to respond.

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