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In the first part of this series we elaborated on the common causes of workplace conflict within law firms based upon the eight causes of conflict proposed by Bell and Hart, and enumerated them. We dealt with conflicts arising from ‘resources’ and ‘working styles.’ In this part of the series, we would be dealing with workplace conflicts in law firms arising from the other six causes.
Perceptions at conflict:
Differences in perceptions are common at law firms due to the secretive natures of management and the overbearing convention and need of ‘confidentiality.’ Differences in perception usually occur when one person knows something that the other does not and hence they perceive the same thing differently. Take for example the case of Dewey and LeBoeuf: Until Steve Harris dropped the bomb in an October meeting telling partners of the actual financial liabilities of the firm and where it stood economically, those outside the coterie had totally different perceptions about the functioning. The same attorneys who had been ‘compelling’ associates to focus on work and not on rumors began to look first for alternative jobs for themselves and then started trying to negotiate group defections. Within a few days all perceptions had changed, because the access to ‘knowledge’ changed.
Everyone sees the world through colored lenses tinted by personal knowledge of things and situations. Workplace conflicts arising from differences in perception need to be understood in terms of difference in knowledge of situations and things, including knowledge of law. The only way to resolve such workplace conflicts arising from differences in perception is to increase transparency and exchange knowledge and information. Once all parties in the conflict have access to the same information about something, logical and rational conclusions would hardly differ so much from each other as to generate conflict.
Goals at conflict:
This, of course, is one of the principal reasons of workplace conflict and arises when individuals have conflicting personal goals, or the personal goals of an employee, or a group of employees, conflict with the goals of the organization. To handle conflicting goals, the first thing is to be sure that they are resolved with concerned parties. One partner of a firm may stress on speed of delivery, while another may stress on quality, and a third pay stress on costs, and unless you talk it out with each in a logical fashion, conflicting goals and accountabilities would continue to generate stress and conflicts. In the practice of law, conflicting objectives are well recognized as a flaw and a clear source of conflicts as the same attorney is lawfully not expected to advise or handle the cases of adversaries.
Conflicts from pressures and priorities:
You need your report by the evening from your legal staff and the same staff is burdened to provide a partner with detailed accounts by the same evening. Conflicts either with the staff or other stakeholders can easily generate under such situations. The nature of these conflicts are very similar to those arising from conflicting objectives but are more task oriented and related with priorities and short-term objectives. The only way to handle this is to be sure that people are not under conflicting pressures and to prioritize things so that delivery of work becomes possible without ensuing conflicts.
Conflicting roles can put a great pressure upon the mind and lead to workplace conflicts. Often, usually young people are asked to do things outside their appointed workplace roles. Well, you may not believe this, but one of my attorney friends was once asked by the law firm partner to go to the airport and receive his mother who was visiting the city for the first time. While my friend did not object because he understood there was an important case the partner just had to attend, and that the situation was that no one else was available, and it also helped him to work into the good books of the partner, still it was not work he expected to do when he joined a big corporate law firm. Later on, those ‘good books’ turned bad because the partner fell into a habit of sending my friend on personal errands, which ultimately he refused to do one day, and then things went bad. Whenever, there is a conflict of roles on the horizon, it is better to stay within appointed territories and not step out of the bounds. Such things can be handled politely enough or with a little white lie, but if allowed, they usually grow cancerous.
If you find that your colleagues or yourself feeling the presence of conflicting roles then the assignment of tasks and their needs should be clear and transparent. People prefer well-defined boundaries in their work roles and do not take it kindly if they are asked to do more, or asked to do less by allowing someone else to step into their territories.
Conflicts from personal cultural conditioning:
Very common in corporate law firms with diverse and globalized workforces, conflicts from personal cultural conditioning and difference in personal values needs to be addressed through communication, empathy, transparency and ethical leadership. One has to be aware of the personal values of group members and learn to respect and accommodate them. Putting the costliest ‘ham’-burger on the plate of a person who does not eat pork due to religious beliefs can lead to bitter conflicts, because you had been trying to please him without taking into consideration his personal values.
Conflicts from unclear policies:
Quite often, big firm management behaves unpredictably and without transparency. Actually there are some partners who believe in developing crises and then solving them as a way of getting things done and gaining visibility. Such people, who are quite common in management, are fond of sudden changes in rules and policies to demonstrate their command and authority. It has a negative effect on the morale of the workplace and can cause dissent and conflicts. Changes in rules and policies must be logical, and such logic needs to be properly communicated to those affected without blindly assuming that rules would be followed, because people are paid to do so. Rules and policies must be fair and consistent within the law firm workplace.
Taken together, the eight sources of conflict as proposed by Bell & Hart can mostly be addressed by proper communication and transparency, things that are difficult to find in law firms.
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