the Practice behind high performance
Making Work, Work

Guest post by Catherine Stothart, Leadership Coach and Team Facilitator, who is the author of How to Get On with Anyone: Gain the Confidence and Charisma to Communicate with any Personality Type.

It’s important for corporate lawyers to build a reputation for excellence and for high performance. But it can be hard to get a grasp of what performance means and how to improve it.

Lawyers are known for their intellectual ability – analytical skills, logical thinking, the ability to synthesise complex information, their attention to detail and so on. Add to this their willingness to work long hours when needed, and they have a strong foundation for high performance.

But while we may have excellent knowledge and skills as individuals, we can’t usually achieve high performance in isolation – we need to work with others who have different needs and priorities to fulfil, and these may conflict with ours. This is where emotional intelligence comes in. Since Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence – why it can matter more than IQ, it’s been widely accepted that to work productively with other people, emotional intelligence (EQ) is required as well as general intelligence. Emotional intelligence is being aware of your own emotions and able to manage them, and being aware of the emotions of others and able to manage the relationship with them.

This piece covers some of the practical things we can do to improve performance by working in more emotionally intelligent ways, looking at two aspects:

  • How we manage ourselves and our own activities to achieve our goals and tasks
  • How we work with others and manage our relationships with our colleagues, clients and other teams – the “soft” skills of high performance

Self-management

Many of the people I coach struggle with numerous competing demands on their time, and they try to fit everything in, working at home and at the weekends. But work will always expand to fit the time you give to it, and ultimately, there are no more hours in the day, so rather than working longer, high performers learn to work smarter.

Top tips:

  • Set yourself clear goals and tasks with plans and timescales and agree them with your partner or general counsel.
  • Don’t over-commit and remember that unplanned things will always crop up, so allow time for these.
    If feasible, block out some time in your calendar each day or week and use it for more strategic activities, or to catch up between meetings.
  • If you are invited to a meeting, ensure you know why you are involved – if you don’t need to be there, politely decline.
  • Have a “growth mindset” – be open to learning and developing your knowledge and skills and plan in some time for this.
  • Ask for feedback from others on how they perceive your behaviour, and what they would like to see you doing more of or less of when you interact with them. (Remember that it is their perception and you don’t have to agree with it, but it is useful information for you on how you come across to others).
  • Take time to build relationships with your colleagues and clients (more of that later).
  • Be aware of when you are feeling the pressure and take steps to build your resilience (take some time out, go for a walk, take a lunch break, re-prioritise, talk to others for social support, eat healthily and get enough sleep and exercise).

Managing Relationships

When we communicate with other people, we usually have a positive intention, but sometimes they way we come across can have a negative impact on them and then we don’t have the influence we want.
Being aware of how you come across and being able to adapt your behaviour to build rapport and collaboration rather than conflict and competition, are critical skills for high performance.

Top tips for emotionally intelligent behaviour:

  • Take time to build rapport, even with people you know well.
  • When in discussion ask open questions beginning with “what” and “how” rather than “why”, which can feel challenging and make people react defensively.
  • Listen to the answers and show you are listening, by asking follow-up questions, repeating back some of what they have said, and checking your understanding.
  • Advocate your own position using examples and sharing your reasoning. Don’t feel threatened by challenge but use it as an opportunity to explain your position.
  • Look for areas of agreement rather than disagreement and build on common ground.
  • When you disagree, use “and” not “but” to bridge to your point of view (“and I think….not “but I think”) – this can help defuse potential conflict.
  • Build trust by revealing your own ideas, feelings and concerns – people sometimes stay silent rather than risk speaking up, but this can lead to worse outcomes
  • Be alert to how people are reacting and responding to you – if someone’s reaction surprises you, then they may not have interpreted your communication in the way you intended.

When we interact with others, lots of things go on below the surface, often outside our conscious awareness. This is particularly true of our emotional responses and these can lead us to say and do things we later regret. The good news is that we can learn how to notice the signs and how to manage our reactions.

  • If you are starting to feel frustrated or irritated, take steps to manage your mood, otherwise your feelings will come out in your behaviour and will have a negative impact on the people you are interacting with. Get up, walk around, change your speed and tone of voice, say something positive.
  • Be mindful of what is happening in your body – your physical responses are an indicator of an emotional reaction and if you can pick these up, you can manage how you behave. Eg tension in the shoulders, faster heart rate, shorter shallower breaths, are all signs that your body is preparing for fight or flight. Take a deep breath, count to 10, move away while you gather your thoughts.
  • Look out for cues that others are experiencing negative emotions – their tone of voice and body language indicate how they feel. If they appear bored, nervous or angry, they probably are, and you will need to change your approach to engage them.
  • Avoid reacting in a way that escalates to conflict and take the heat and pace out of the situation by using a calm tone of voice and measured body language.
  • Make allowances for the negative impact of their behaviour on you and seek to understand their positive intention. The colleague who comes across as impatient and demanding might intend to get quick, achievable results. Your peer who appears slow and inflexible might want to ensure that there is a carefully thought through plan.
  • Act in a way that helps other people maintain their self-esteem, otherwise they will become defensive and less open to collaboration. Don’t criticise them or make them feel they are wrong, don’t interrupt or talk over them. Instead, ask their opinion, encourage them, show interest and concern for their concerns.
  • Communicate positive emotions – enthusiasm, energy, curiosity – and these will be picked up by your colleagues.

Being able to manage ourselves and our relationships are essential for high performance. If you can match the impact of your behaviour to your intention, and respond constructively to other people’s intentions, you are more likely to achieve the influence and the high performance you want.

Making Work, Work

We are delighted to have Audrey Tang,  Chartered Psychologist (CPsychol), and the author of “The Leader’s Guide to Mindfulness as a guest blogger on The Attic. 

While it can take time for laws to change, negotiations in everyday legal practice can move swiftly and sometimes unpredictably.  For lawyers, it is not just about what is reasonably foreseeable but responding in a volatile environment under pressure.  The practice of mindfulness can help build resilience to unpredictability supporting any management and navigation through it as well as broaden thinking in order to innovate for success.

Do this: Think of your professional abilities on a scale.  Outline them in no particular order.

Those who are experienced or natural in their professional role may have a longer scale than those who are just starting or learning.  But whether you are already practised, or just starting out – you have the capacity to develop more.

The difference between taking a mindful approach to leadership to any other skills textbook is not in making the scale longer, but by adding depth. 

How will I benefit from mindfulness?

By incorporating mindful practice enhancing your self-awareness, you will refine the leadership skills you already have, as well as develop further your emotional agility to adapt as needed – either using what you’ve got, or through innovation.  Most importantly, mindful practice will also support and assist your longevity in role and promote your growth. (Tang, 2018)

Mindfulness underpins the successful practice of professional skills, and enhances the emotional agility to interchange between them for best effect.  As the needs of those around you change so too must your disposition and approach.  This is true whether your desire is to remain at the forefront of your organisational field, the “right person for the job” or simply “the winning side”.  

While you may have many skills at your disposal, under stress can you pick which is right?  …and for how long can you sustain that effectively?  Every day comes with pressure. Significant decisions have to be made – which have far reaching – and sometimes life changing – consequences; the threat of competition is always lurking; alliances may need to be formed which may or may not serve you long term; Further, if you are also an emotional agile leader, you will often have a team who – with open lines of communication – will seek your advice as they need to; and of course, you will also have a fulfilling life outside the workplace which needs maintenance and attention.

This is emotionally draining, and while popular articles cite the Hygge of the Danes, or the slower pace of other countries, the “pause button” is much harder to find within the driven executive culture of the UK and US.  

What mindfulness offers is the ability to take control of your behavioural and emotional state.  This in turn enables a better performance of all your other skills essential to your role.  The world will not wait for you – unless you make it.

15 Mindfulness Tips

While most professional training involves how one can develop more skills, increasing the breadth of ability, mindfulness works on giving depth to everything you already do. As such, here are 15 mindfulness tips for success in the driven legal world.

For clearer awareness and focus (especially on a documents you have worked on for some time):

#1 Energising palette/mind cleanse 

Similar to the wine connoisseur who takes a water biscuit between tastings, refresh your energy before picking up where you left off, rather than heading directly from one task to another. Try some star jumps, or splashing water on your face, maybe even deep breathing (point 2). This allows you to enter the next task with more energy and engagement than if you were still focused on the last.

#2 Deep breathing

Mentally scrolling through possible outcomes to explore can bring feelings of stress.  Simply breathe in through the nose for 4 counts, hold for 2 and breathe out through the mouth for 6. This calms you physically enabling your mind to ‘breathe’ again as well. 

#3 Paired Muscle Relaxation

Tensing and relaxing pairs of muscles helps you recognise when certain emotions are at the fore.  (I have a tendency to grind my teeth, so recognising how my jaw feels when it is tense and relaxed, often cues me into recognising my stress better. )  Once you are able to recognise that you are experiencing stress you can take steps to manage it in order to progress your work with a more conducive mindset.

For creativity:

#4 Look through the eyes of…

This is a common technique used in coaching and therapy to enable greater understanding of how a situation may be perceived by someone else.  But why not also use it to enhance creativity too?  By thinking of a task through the eyes of the client, a service user, perhaps even your family or a specific friend if so relevant…you may tap into a point of view you had not considered that enhances what you are trying to do.

#5 Observe with all your senses

All too often we observe only with our eyes.  By thinking about how you feel, what you smell, or what something sounds like, you may again access another level of awareness which can contribute to your design or ideas.  Try to observe with all your senses and gather yet more information which can be utilised.  Is there a preferred time of day when brainstorming is more productive? What language do those you might be trying to influence use eg the difference between “I hear you” and “I see what you’re saying” can give an insight to the type of stimuli they respond well to. Alternatively, a metaphor of smell or taste could be more effective than one of sight.

For Team Cohesion:

#6 Plan

You are extremely busy yourself, yet you want to help.  Why not pre-prepare a template for the questions you are commonly asked?  This enables the person asking to utilise your guidance while still doing the task themselves, and saves you some time too. Similarly, if you know you are a “Yes” person, have some planned statements so you do not spread yourself too thinly – even a simple “I’ll give you an answer at 5pm” can give you time to think about whether you really can help.

#7 Try something new 

Do you have the same conversation (or discussion) over and over again?  As soon as you recognise you are in a loop, stop, take a moment to breathe (which relaxes your body and mind enabling greater clarity of thought) and try to proceed in a completely different way.

#8 Identify your real agenda

As an extension from point 7.  Ask yourself – What is actually going on here?  What do I really want from this interaction? (You don’t need to admit it to anyone, but recognising it can help you take the most effective action – even if it involves changing tack).

For performance:

#9 Ask don’t assume 

People generally don’t hide important information deliberately, sometimes the task is so habitual to them they forget to mention it.  Have an agenda of questions which you may need answers to when learning something new.

#10 It’s not always enough to think you know it

If making a presentation, it’s not enough to know you have a dynamic script when read in your head.  Presenting is a performance skill. Sometimes rehearsing something OUT LOUD helps you recognise the gaps in your knowledge, argument or phrasing.

For you:

#11 Have photos of loved ones accessible

So often you will say “They are on my phone”.  Research has shown that looking at a photo of a loved one/happy memory can release a small hit of endorphins.  Yet, when they are on a phone you need to take the phone out, unlock it, look for it and sometimes worry about being caught!  If you can, keep the memory accessible.

#12 Personalise your “Mask”

You may wear a professional ‘cloak’ or ‘step into role’…  Even if it is not possible to personalise your outfit overtly, it is possible to wear something that reminds you of you on the inside!  It is as essential to ground yourself after a successful performance as it is to play the part professionally during.

#13 Recognise the good things – and offer thanks

You may be focused on a new achievement or target, but don’t forget to spend a moment to recognise how far you’ve come and what you have right now.  Spend a moment each day to think about the things you are grateful for – and sometimes, it might even be nice to voice them if they were offered by others.

#14 Feeling down – Play out your recent personal showreel

It is possible to make yourself feel better by thinking about past achievements.  However, as you play out your personal showreel also try to think about recent incidences (however small) of the things you are proud of.  Life moves forward, and making new memories is as important as cherishing old ones.

#15 Better yourself rather than beat others

Although much of your work may centre around winning, manage any personal competitive streak (which can negatively impact on your self-perception) by recognising when you are in the mindset of comparison and turn the focus to doing something to achieve a goal you want for yourself instead. For example, if a colleague wins a praise and you feel a sense of disappointment that you have no recognition (even if you weren’t aiming for it), identify what it is that would make you feel personal pride, and focus on that – maybe it’s spending a little more quality time with your children, or signing up for that long desired course.

Many of these exercises can be developed to raise awareness and focus further, through meditation and combining their practice with other techniques – many of which I discuss in my book “The Leader’s Guide to Mindfulness.”

While these ideas may seem obvious to some, these tips are often harder to implement than you may think – especially on a consistent basis.  Further, being mindful is as much about making what we are vaguely aware of explicit – and getting it to work for us.