It was over a beer that one of my former partners confessed his confusion. He could not understand why his secretary hated him so much. In a moment of absolute sincerity he pondered the unfairness of the situation and described himself as “a really nice guy.” When I finally stopped laughing, I had to tell him the sobering truth. He was absolutely wrong.
It was true that his assistant hated him and I knew exactly why. About once a month, this otherwise calm fellow for some minor reason would suddenly burst into a rage and scream at her. On most days he was as calm and predictable as Dr. Jekyll but we all knew that Mr. Hyde lurked somewhere beneath, ready to appear and rant uncontrollably, disturbing hard-working people from one end of the hallway to the other. What made it really difficult was the utter randomness of it all. He seemed to explode with the slightest provocation and that was the problem.
He tried to defend himself by offering examples of his magnanimity and presented the following explanation to justify his behaviour: His secretary made many small mistakes. When these occurred he typically did not tell her. When confronted with a minor mistake, 19 out of 20 times on average he simply ignored the error and went about his business. In his mind, that made him a nice fellow 95 per cent of the time.
It was probably true that 95 per cent of the time he didn’t say anything when a small error occurred, but it wasn’t true that he ignored these mistakes. He maintained a mental catalogue and secretly kept score, tallying each minor infraction as error upon error stacked up like cordwood. Although no single mistake was terribly important or disastrous, the injuries compounded and his offence grew. He bottled up his anger and became a simmering Vesuvius of frustration. Invariably at some point around the 20th error he could bear the mistakes no longer and the screaming would begin.
From the perspective of his unfortunate assistant, daily life was a walk through a minefield. Despite her best efforts to create some sort of emotional seismograph, the lack of feedback from the partner meant his tantrums were impossible to predict in advance. The secretary might misspell a client’s name 19 times in a row without even knowing it and without any negative feedback. The 20th instance of the error would, however, cause a meltdown.
The anger always seemed completely out of proportion in regards to the issue at hand. From down the hall, the din of raised voices would have caused others to assume the assistant had been involved in some major offence. Would a single misspelling on a draft letter justify such abuse? Of course not.
Managing work performance is actually quite simple. It boils down to three things: job expectations, an honest assessment of job performance, and an explanation of the benefits or consequences of job performance when compared to the expectations.
To make it all work though, you have to actually talk to people. I suggested to my partner that yelling was an impractical approach when trying to communicate important information. I asked him how his assistant was supposed to react when something was viewed as acceptable 19 times in a row only to be suddenly viewed as unacceptable the next. In his mind, he had been cutting her slack on mistakes she must have known about. He assumed she was keeping score as well. I suggested she didn’t know the score and told him he was setting her up to fail by avoiding the sometimes uncomfortable task of providing feedback.
I laid out some simple recommendations on providing training and giving feedback, setting clear expectations, and most importantly how to deal with problems and conflict. I hoped for an opportunity to help fix things but alas, the assistant resigned to go somewhere else less stressful. My advice was not heeded in time and consequently, my partner lost his assistant.
Despite my warnings, he never did change his management style and had the same experience with the following assistant. And the next. And the next three that followed after. Losing a valued assistant every nine months or so is not an efficient way to run a practice. It is not normal. In the mind of my partner, the 95-per-cent rule still proves he is a nice guy. I disagree with that theory and I’m fairly sure the growing population of his past assistants would disagree as well.
Charles Gillis is the executive director of the law firm Munsch Hardt Kopf & Harr PC in Dallas, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.