Tuesday, July 21, 2015

I'm Bored!

As a mom, one thing gets on my nerves more than anything each summer - the inevitable "I'm bored" statement coming from a kid who has every toy imaginable and a huge yard to play in.  But what I dread even more is the "I'm bored" attitude from an employee.

At best it means I have a disengaged, dispassionate employee with horrendous productivity.  At worst, it means I'm wasting a talented resource who will soon leave me and be difficult to replace.  This is not unique to lawyers, but I've found that it happens more often in the legal team due to the potential isolation of the department because of the nature of our work and the structure of the company.  Unless you're engaged in senior management, in house lawyers don't do a lot of strategy work.  Which means that they're not working on the exciting stuff until after it's floated around the company for awhile.  Junior attorneys and remote/distance attorneys also get left out of collaborative projects that leave them handling routine matters over and over again.  You can only negotiate that indemnity language so many ways before it becomes something you can do in your sleep.

And that's when they start to sleep on the job (figuratively, I hope).  Most employees will give you signs that they're bored.  Good ones will ask for more work, not so good ones will ask for more time off.  Both can poison the productivity of the team - if for no other reason than misery loves company.  Even a bored superstar can't help but put off a vibe of frustration that's highly contagious.  And the superstar can fairly easily find another job.  They may wait it out a bit in hopes of things getting better, maybe out of a sense of loyalty to you or the company.  But eventually they'll leave and all those routine matters land back in your lap.  A less motivated employee may take advantage of the situation and just turn in crap work for awhile until you have to replace them.  And again you've got those routine matters back in your lap, and we know you're not bored.

So what's a manager to do?  Keep an eye out for the signs of boredom - hurried work, procrastination from otherwise productive team members, complaining about everything, etc.  Give opportunities to vary work load within competencies.  So you have one employment lawyer, let her work on some consultant contracts.  Or let your patent guy work on a licensing deal.  Get your employees engaged early on in the life-cycle of the "cool stuff".  Don't outsource all the deal work for that acquisition.  Let the attorney that will draft the terms of use for that new product in on some of the development meetings.  Give them something to shake up the routine.  And take the pulse of the department periodically.  Fully engaged employees will put up with more grunt work because they see the big picture and their place in it.  Disengaged employees see only their day to day and it affects their attitude, which in turn affects the attitude of those around them.  Know who your complainers are and keep them in check.

Sometimes there's nothing you can do for the bored employees.  We have a job to do and sometimes that has to be enough.  If it's not, help them move on with dignity and try to replace them with someone whose idea of gratifying work fits within the definition of the work they'll actually be doing.  If that doesn't work, do what I do to my kids - tell them to come up with their own solution and that you'll help them implement it if possible...or go outside and play. (depending on how many times I've heard the whine that day.)

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