Heading Off a Palace Coup

Sheila Markin Nielsen, M.S.W., J.D.

“She‘s a nice person especially once you get to know her well, but a number of associates are complaining about working for her. I can tell you that she sometimes gives her associates last minute projects, but other partners do that too. So there‘s something else going on and frankly I don‘t know what it is. Maybe you can figure it out.“ I was getting a referral from the human resources director of a large law firm. He had been told by the managing partner that this female partner was upsetting the associates she worked with. She had been strongly advised to meet with me for executive coaching.

The human resources director also explained that the firm was hoping to keep all of the associates and this partner on board despite some hard-to-define tension that threatened to erupt into someone‘s expulsion from the firm. “ I should tell you,“ he said, “if things don‘t work out here we will have to ask this partner to leave the firm even though she‘s a good business developer.“ That was a surprise. Usually it‘s the associates who pay the ultimate price for personality clashes at a law firm, not a highly productive partner. What was going on here?

I met with Julie a few days later. She swept into my office with an imperial air. She was a beautiful, self-confident, perfectly dressed Asian woman who shook my hand firmly, immediately establishing her authority and dominance. Along with her dynamic presence, she conveyed, in our early conversation, a sense of critical skepticism about people generally, and about whether I could be the least bit helpful to her. No doubt she was reacting to the humiliation of being sent to work with me on her management skills. But even taking that into consideration, she was a highly judgmental person, and I doubted that she was aware of this quality in herself or how it must be affecting the way others reacted to her.

Julie began advocating her position right away. She was “affronted and shocked“ by this turn of events at her firm. Nobody had complained to HER about her management skills and suddenly THIS. “Besides, I really don‘t think I have a problem.“

“How do you see it?“ I asked. “How do you understand the circumstances at your firm that brought you here?“

She thought she was the victim of sexism.

Sexism is always a possibility when there is a powerful woman experiencing what seems to be an unfair playing field. That issue is very hard to uncover or expose or be sure about since nobody goes around wearing a sign announcing their sexist intentions. But very often there is more to the story. When I see a female attorney in a position of authority who is struggling to maintain her status, I have learned to pay attention to the Machiavellian power plays going on behind the scenes. Put people together in a group and you are usually going to get conspiratorial power politics, in part because few people in the work world are brave enough or foolish enough to tell other people the truth. People say things to other people surreptitiously and maneuver themselves into position to gain power, using other people‘s agendas to advance their own goals. When the group dynamics at a firm target an individual as a problem person, the matter is likely to be more complex and nuanced than pure undiluted sexism although sexism might be a big factor. In Julie‘s case I was sure that her judgmental attitude was part of the problem.

I asked Julie to describe the other partners she worked with to see if we could gain a better understanding of the events that led to her referral to me.

She mentioned in passing that one of her partners was a “power hungry guy“ who was making a bid for a management position that she was also being considered for.

That caught my attention.

Then I asked her to help me understand her relationships with her associates. “Tell me about your interactions with each associate who has trouble working with you.“ Interestingly, all of them were younger women. Although Julie tried to be positive about them, her distaste for each of them was evident. She criticized their writing ability, their intelligence, their dedication to work, even their clothing choices. She talked about how much more dedicated and hard working she had been when she was an associate.

“Your associates sound like they are not measuring up to your standards,“ I ventured. She agreed enthusiastically.

“What do you write about them when you do their reviews?“

“I put down anything positive I can come up with,“ she said, rolling her eyes. “I have to be positive because I need these people. I have to have these associates stay on to do my work even though they are not very good.“

In Julie‘s estimation these associates were not only lazy but unfair and mean-spirited. They were apparently making unaccountably negative comments about her behind her back for no reason at all, while she was forced to suffer their lackluster performances and pretend that they were capable and helpful lawyers. This charade made Julie feel understandably angry and annoyed, even martyred. And her frustration was evident.

“But I never let on to anyone how I really feel about these associates,“ she confided. “You‘re the first person I‘ve told about this. I am absolutely sure that no one at the firm has any idea I feel this way.“

I had my doubts about that.

My working hypothesis was that her associates were acutely aware of her distain and disapproval of them and had been grumping about her behind her back. It was a good bet that since so many of them had negative reactions to her, they were emboldened to report their dissatisfaction to more powerful partners at the firm. Hearing about these complaints, possibly even encouraging the associates to voice their dissatisfaction with Julie, the partner who was making his power play was able to utilize the complaints of these unhappy associates as ammunition against her with the managing partner. This would account for the unusual comment made by the human resource director that Julie would be the one targeted for elimination, not one or more of the complaining associates. Of course given the way that most office politics get played out, Julie would be told none of this. She would only learn that the associates had complained.

Using this hypothesis, I also wondered whether Julie‘s referral to me for executive coaching might be part of the power play. Since she had been sent for remedial work on her people skills, she could be portrayed as a poor choice for advancement to a management position. I discussed these ideas with Julie and she found them not only credible, but likely.

Then came the more difficult work we needed to do. Assuming our theory was right, what should she do to advance her career at this firm? Our work focused in part on how to interact effectively with people at her firm, including her associates. I found that after creating a good alliance with Julie she was able to listen to my feedback about how she came across in her interactions with me and with others. She was willing to dissect and explore those behaviors that others might perceive and respond to as haughty or demeaning, for example. She turned out to be wonderfully adept at learning and changing her way of interacting once she saw how destructive the negative group dynamic was to the cohesion of her practice work group, and to her success at the firm and with clients.

At my urging, Julie met with each of her associates for lunch one-by-one. She invited their complaints and re-stated their complaints back to them to demonstrate her understanding. She created a dialogue with each woman and better relationships resulted with most of them over time.

Julie was also willing to look at some of her underlying personality constructs that caused her to convey a sense of superiority, skepticism, criticism, and arrogance in her interactions with other people. To her credit she was able to recognize in herself that she had a very loud internal critical voice that drove her to excel but also tortured her. She had trouble turning it off. She could never do things well enough for her inner taskmaster, even when she was doing her best. This same voice ran a critical tape of judgmental commentary about everyone else in the world and how they were missing the mark even more than she was. When her associates did poorly, this internal voice would denigrate them, but, interestingly, she would also get the competitive thrill of doing so much better than her lackluster sisters. There was a part of her that wanted to be the only successful woman around. But of course that attitude was leaking out, poisoning her relationships with her associates, which was clearly counterproductive to a good working group, and ultimately to her success with her clients and her firm. These insights were epiphanies for Julie and she was remarkably smart about using them to reshape her behavior.

We worked on the problem of last minute work assignments and how to delegate tasks more effectively. At my urging, Julie implemented a number of procedural changes in the way she organized herself and managed others. These new strategies worked well enough to convince her to keep using them.

We addressed the issue of the potential power play for a management slot that might have been the real reason that she was referred to me. After some consideration, Julie decided that at least for now, she did not want management responsibility at her firm and preferred to spend her time developing and running her practice because this was what she loved to do. She let it be known that she was pulling out of the race for a management position at the firm. If our hunch was right, this would create a clear path to management for the partner striving to get ahead. Once he realized that she posed no threat to his aspirations he would stop plotting to “kill her off.“ We would watch to see what happened over time, after she made this strategic announcement.

In the next few months Julie did a great job of creating better relationships with her associates. I could track her behavior change by monitoring her descriptions of interactions at work. I also personally experienced a change in her manner of relating to me. She developed more of a team approach to management. She began to include her associates in her business development activities which must have helped them to feel valued by her. Although they were not always the perfect associates, once she became more encouraging she discovered that they each had skills that would support the practice group. Julie learned to encourage those skills by giving constructive but also supportive feedback and by delegating tasks with a greater clarity of expectation and timeliness on her own part. She changed her conceptual attitude about the work being done; it was not only “her“ work, but “their“ work.

At my urging, she also looked for reasons to frequently thank each person who worked for her for something that person had accomplished which was helpful to the success of the group as a whole: going beyond the call, staying late, meeting a difficult deadline, writing a good answer and so forth. Obviously this helped her associates to feel better about working with her. In addition she learned that she was able to be more honest about telling her associates how they could improve as long as she also provided support and positive feedback to them and delivered her message with the right tone.

As for our hunch about the competitive partner, it seems to have been right. Signaling her lack of interest in a power position at the firm has resulted in benign neglect. Julie has been left alone to develop her practice without further interference. Her position at the firm is no longer in jeopardy, her associates are more productive, satisfied, and loyal to her, and Julie has created a more effective team to support her thriving practice.

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