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

As the nature of our working offices changes, office workers, remote workers, flexible workers, and those that do a bit of all those things are all part of the company structure. This means that, more than ever, trust and support is a vital component of good management.

Trust leads to higher morale and loyalty throughout the organisation. Trust in colleagues is a key part of a collaborative, productive and positive working culture: it is the foundation of leadership and management. Managers need to trust their employees to have the integrity to do the work with minimal direct supervision, particularly if flexible working is to flourish.

Any manager who wants to foster trust will find it fairly easy to assess the integrity of long term and permanent members of staff. It can be more difficult when using temporary, remote or freelance workers on a project-by-project basis to afford them the same independence. Consultants may find themselves dealing with two extremes of a lack of trust in management: a.) being left alone too much as the manager is reluctant to bring them in to the inner workings of the business, leaving them unable to see their role in the broader context of the business, or b.) having to deal with micromanagement, slowing down their work with unnecessary reviews, meetings, being unable to take responsibility for tasks and relying on the input of the manager. It’s easy to see how this can impair the performance of both sides in either scenario. A lack of delegation and communication will inevitably lead to mutual mistrust of each other’s capabilities and ability to work together to achieve overall goals.

Having access to a high quality pool of independent talent who can be part of the business in all senses can help alleviate worries when bringing in contract or freelance consultants. Using a network of experienced legal talent, many of whom have worked for many years within practices and in legal services, means the consultant can be vouched for and has a proven record of working independently, working to understand the long term needs of clients beyond their own role.

Creating a culture of trust

Trust, as they say, is something to be earned – but it is also something to be learned. In business, trust can be thought of as a vital skill that must be built on throughout the working relationship. It ebbs and flows, but it must always be nurtured and checked. Building trust in work is no different to doing so in other relationships. It’s important to:

Be authentic

You don’t have to share details of your life you may not be comfortable with, but it does help to connect with those you work with on more than a professional level. Talking about family, office anecdotes, sharing opinions offers a window to the self that is behind the work, all those things help you feel more comfortable within the circle and allow others to feel more comfortable around you too.

Find common ground in your work

Offering a sense of who you are can help see where common goals lie. If a manager sees you have a shared level of drive and motivation to achieve something, even if it is in a different way of working to what they may be used to, mutual trust is more likely to be established.

Have regular, honest communication

Regular communication doesn’t have to mean checking up on an individual or micromanagement, but you should be updating one another on project progress and any relevant additional information, offering the opportunity for queries or requests. Providing those opportunities allows the other person to be more open about any potential problems or concerns as and when they arise, rather than feeling that they don’t know how to approach the issue with the other person.

As Stephen Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People said: “Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.” Trusted employees feel more valued and are more productive, and trusting managers will have more time on their hands to concentrate on the bigger picture.