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Commentary: Learn to manage your dysfunctional trial team

Like any other team, litigation squads are susceptible to developing dysfunctional patterns, caused mainly by one or two people who disrupt the entire “flow” of the team and often cause a fatal communication breakdown.

Many with dysfunctional communication styles can hide them most of the time, but the stress and anxiety of a trial can cause them to surface. Do you recognize any of the dysfunctional archetypes in your colleagues? If so, here are a few short-term suggestions for working with and for these folks. (Disclaimer: This carries the risk of oversimplification, because personalities and related disorders are complex issues best addressed outside a conference room.)

1) The dictator is not interested in anyone else’s ideas. He wants it done his way or no way, and the dictator trait tends to come out as the trial gets closer.

His way of alleviating anxiety involves yelling, demanding and controlling. He zaps morale and contributes to a feeling of incompetence among the rest of the team. No one is ever as good as the dictator. People become fearful of his wrath and agonize over every decision, every sentence and suggestion. The team begins to walk on eggshells, worried about how the dictator will react.

The dictator creates a paralysis among the team, as ideas stop coming, tasks take longer to complete, and no one wants to interact directly with the dictator.

Strategy: Enlist a trusted outsider to come in for a fresh look at how the case is progressing. Often, the dictator just needs someone he respects to help him take a step back and remember that the team is working together for a common outcome.

Anxiousness can easily cause a person to yield to the downward spiral and forget how hard everyone on the team is working.

Enlist a “co-leader” with an opposite personality with respect to handling stress: calm under pressure, someone who can work collaboratively and will balance the dictator out. Hold weekly team meetings (of which the dictator is not in charge) so that everyone contributes help keep communication flowing.

2) The wanderer, usually a leader or senior-level worker, disappears often. She is rarely around late or on weekends. She appears at the worst possible times (e.g., on her way out the door) and is not as responsive as she needs to be, causing the whole team to wait.

Everyone else on the team is sweating bullets and working 18-hour days, while she moseys in around 9 a.m. to “check in” while ignoring the utter exhaustion and chaos going on around her. Then around 6 p.m., she wanders out while everyone else has to hunker down for at least four more hours.

This person is a morale killer and starts breeding resentment early on in the trial preparation process. Team members ultimately harbor disdain for the wanderer and become less and less incentivized to do the work that makes her look good.

In addition, tasks that she should be doing are delegated to others first. Whether anxiety causes wanderers to become overwhelmed and check out or they just are poor leaders to begin with, the team suffers.

Strategy: The wanderer needs a couple of senior associates or junior partners to act as liaisons for the rest of the team. They must be given authority when the wanderer is unreachable so that people are not forced to wait.

In addition, the liaisons can work together to come up with a rotation that allows at least one person on the team to have a night off, which prevents burn-out and helps to level the playing field. Resentment will diminish when everyone feels that they are treated fairly, if not equally.

Healthy team dynamics include covering for each other when necessary, as opposed to the decidedly dysfunctional dynamic of always covering for the same person.

3) The manipulator is often recognized as such and disliked by peers, but praised by those above him. He makes everything appear differently than it actually is.

He knows when to be present and when not to be. He knows exactly which emails to respond to and when, and excludes just the right people from the email. He knows how to make himself look good in front of the senior partners and does not hesitate to do so at the expense of his peers.

Very skilled manipulators often leave the rest of the team frustrated and angry, sometimes without an obvious reason why.

The result is a contentious working relationship at the lower level. People don’t want to work together, disagree on how to get things done, assign blame when things go wrong, and in each instance, the manipulator comes out unscathed.

Furthermore, because senior partners love the manipulator, his peers don’t say anything about his behavior.

Strategy: Manipulators are difficult to work with and extremely toxic. Unfortunately, they have built all their relationships on their behavior and have little incentive to change. Often, not always, the manipulator has a personality disorder and it is best to avoid working with him altogether.

If you are a manipulator’s peer, keep the relationship highly professional and cordial. Keep the interaction limited and don’t react emotionally or share anything personal. The manipulator will use whatever he has in his coffers to get ahead in the organization.

If you are a senior-level employee who has a manipulator on your team, be prepared for a lot of conflict or, in some cases, general unhappiness. Watch for signs of dissent and out-of-the-ordinary behavior: obsequious to authority figures; disdain for those perceived to be beneath him, such as younger associates or staff; and a general sense that there is one superstar and no one is even a close second (a façade that is usually manufactured by the manipulator). Address him immediately when the signs appear or risk losing good employees.

4) The passive aggressive co-worker is maddening. Much like the manipulator, she will leave you frustrated and confused because her actions often have plausible deniability. Some such co-workers hope to control others, some hope to induce feelings of guilt or shame, and some are just angry people who misdirect it.

For example, a co-worker might offer a lot of backhanded compliments, often in front of superiors: “This brief is excellent! Who helped you with it?” Or, “I like your deposition outline. You must have had to stay up all night.”

Or, when a task becomes complicated and requires extra work, the passive aggressive person might say something like: (big sigh) “I will be OK. You go ahead and go home.”

Sometimes she will display artificial concern, again in front of others, as she stabs you in the back to making herself look better: “That is a complex legal question. Are you sure you don’t need help? I would be happy to lend a hand and answer any questions you have.”

Strategy: The best strategy is to take the power away from the aggressor. When she delivers the backhanded compliment about your brief, respond as if it is a real compliment: “Why, thank you! It all came together nicely.” Or, in the example of the deposition: “I was able to put this deposition together fairly easily because I know this case really well.” Return statements in the “I” form, not “you,” so it doesn’t escalate the exchange.

5) The gossip is everywhere. They talk about co-workers who work late together, bosses they despise, colleagues who threaten their position in the pecking order. Gossips feel insecure, need attention, and want to have control.

Sometimes the gossip is true; maybe those two co-workers are doing more than working, and maybe the boss is terrible. But the bottom line is that discussing even truths in whispered, secretive tones is weak and damaging to workplace relationships, because it can breed distrust among similarly insecure co-workers and tarnish reputations.

People who seek attention find power in disseminating information — true or not — especially when preceded by: “Don’t tell anyone.”

Strategy: A law firm should have a policy and practice for dealing with gossip. Sensitivity training helps. Educate employees to respond by saying, “I am more interested in what is going on with you. What have you been up to lately?” Or, when someone starts spreading rumors about two colleagues who work closely together: “I am not really interested in people’s personal lives, but I was wondering if you could help me review this motion?”

Again, taking the power away from the gossiper stops him from sharing with you. If everyone can do that, the gossiper will have to take it outside the office, as the internal audience no longer exists.

There are, of course, many more dysfunctional communication styles I see in the war room. Trials require a lot of collaboration, and that cannot occur when there is distrust and fear and loathing.

By employing the above strategies and perhaps holding some communication seminars to expose the weaknesses, everyone will have more tools in their toolboxes when dysfunction rears its ugly head.

Julie Campanini is the founder and principal at Trial Insights. She can be reached at Julie@trialinsights.com. A version of this column originally appeared in Rhode Island Lawyers Weekly, sister publication to The Daily Record.