There are days (and I’m sure that every in house lawyer has them) when it seems like nobody is listening to me. When my client nods politely as I advise on the problems with their project, and then goes off and does exactly what they were going to do anyway.
Or, even worse, when people don’t want to hear my advice in the first place. The ill-conceived initiative that’s been deliberately hidden from the lawyers is a rite of in house passage, a test of temperament and political skill.
So how do we get our colleagues to pay attention to what we’re saying? Well, here’s what I’ve learned from my reign of terror time at Bizzle Towers, starting with two strategies that don’t work:
1. The neutral adviser In other words, the lawyer’s obligation is simply to give the best advice that he can, and the client that has paid for that advice is free to ignore it.
But if your advice is ignored and things go wrong, who’s going to be asked to fix it? There’s no extra fees to be earned here, just more unpaid overtime – so prevention is always better than cure.
2. It’s obvious! Or, as a compliance manager that I once worked with put it somewhat plaintively, “Why wouldn’t you comply with the law?”.
Well, there’s cost for one thing, and personal inconvenience for another. But most of all, there’s the power of magical thinking: “I want to do this thing, so it must be legal”.
In other words, don’t operate on the assumption that your colleagues are smart, or that they’d recognise the right thing to do if it fell on their head with a label attached saying ‘this is the right thing to do’. With that in mind, here’s some approaches that might be more effective:
3. The idiot’s guide So, however simple something appears, it’s not simple enough for some of your colleagues. The basic technique, then, is to take some time to explain what the law is, and how it applies to the situation in hand. Very … slowly … and … carefully … so that there’s no room for misunderstanding.
4. The hard word If even your most basic ABC exposition of the law isn’t getting through, it’s time for a different tack – the terrifying consequence. All kinds of dire events can be postulated, from disciplinary action through regulatory investigation and right up to personal criminal liability. Some of them may even be true.
5. War stories This is a slightly safer version of the hard word, for use when laying down the law would be, shall we say, career-limiting. The trick is to find a news item about a company or its officers getting into trouble because they didn’t follow the course of action that you’re recommending. It helps if someone in the story went to prison.
6. Let ‘em fail I once heard someone at a GC conference guiltily confess to a desire for “small disasters”. In other words, if things go just wrong enough then recalcitrant colleagues will realise the risks without any major harm being done to the business.
You don’t want a major incident on your hands, of course, but it’s even worse if nothing happens at all – no one would ever listen to you again. Precise calibration of this tactic is therefore crucial.
7. The long game Expend some effort on beating deadlines, or on going out of your way to make life easier for colleagues. Stroke some egos. Even buy coffee or stopping for a chat might help.
Then, one day when you really need them to listen, you’ll have some capital to draw on and some favours to call in. Even the Bizzle has been known to be nice to his colleagues in the name of this strategy.
8. The appeal to a higher power Of course, there are some people who are resistant to the long game, affecting not to remember the help that you gave them on that difficult deal last year. The rules of office politics mean clearly nothing to these soulless ingrates, and so one must rely on main force – make sure that the MD has already agreed with your advice, and they’ll be left with no choice but to submit.
All of this actually happens, but it’s not really proper influencing. Here’s the science bit:
9. Making it easy A lot of the time when people ignore your advice it’s because they think it will mean more work for them. So one of the most effective ways to influence is to make sure that it doesn’t, either by offering to do the extra work yourself or by finding a solution that doesn’t actually require any.
Why should you take on extra work to turn someone’s bad idea into a workable proposition? Well, from their perspective it’s actually a great idea (it must be, because they had it) that you’re ruining with petty objections. So it’s only right that you fix the problem that you’re making…
10. An actual solution In other words, don’t tell people what they can’t do, tell them what they can do: not that way, but this way. Tell them how they can win business and make money by doing the right thing (it is possible, honest). It’s so obvious, and yet I’ve seen many in house legal and compliance advisers fail to do it.
I’ll leave you with my favourite influencing fail. Many years ago, a colleague (not a lawyer) was attempting to persuade the board to buy a particular risk management tool. Utterly convinced of its merits, he failed to notice the growing scepticism of his audience.
Eventually, they asked him, “So, if this is so good, why doesn’t everyone buy it?”. “I don’t know”, he replied, “You’d have to be stupid not to”. An awkward silence, eventually broken with “So, what you’re saying is…”
We never saw him again.