Seven Ways to Overcome Isolation in Your Workplace
Being different sometimes makes us feel as if we lack colleagues with whom to share experiences, explore ideas, and commiserate. MCCA’s research has found that diverse attorneys are especially prone to feeling isolated in their places of work.1 These attorneys have expressed that they feel excluded from informal networking, as well as opportunities to develop client relationships.2
Lori L. Garrett
Informal networking opportunities within a workplace are critical to providing the information, resources, assignments, and advice necessary to develop one’s career. Likewise, one of the most important components of a lawyer’s career longevity involves access to opportunities to develop client relationships. If you are feeling disconnected, separated, or alone in your workplace because of differences—regardless of whether you are a new attorney or senior counsel—here are seven ways that you can help ensure that you will be included more frequently.
1. Ask – Request to be included in key client-relation teams. Never underestimate the power of simply asking; it is the most effective way to inject yourself into a circumstance without overstepping boundaries. If it is not appropriate for you to be involved on a matter, asking for an explanation is the most efficient way to find out why. You stand to learn a tremendous amount about staffing decisions just by asking. The fastest way to bring transparency to your situation is to initiate the dialogue about inclusion on key projects and with key clients.
2. Organize Interactions – “Play dates” are organized for the social development of children. What can lawyers learn from structured social time? By regularly requesting periodic meetings, lunches, or after-work drinks a certain number of times a month/year, you will consistently develop relationships and demonstrate your commitment to being part of the organization’s team. In addition, you will learn about others, others will learn about you, and you will gain access to information about the happenings of your organization. By simply leaving things to chance encounters in the hall or elevator, you risk being overlooked. Be sure to meet with coworkers outside of your daily work group and across experience levels to develop relationships across your organization. Organizing structured time to spend with colleagues is better than having no time with them at all.
3. Build Rapport – Focus on rapport, not “chemistry,” in your work relationships.3 Chemistry connotes mutual attraction, and is better suited for personal relationships. You do not have to devote nearly as much time, or expend as much effort, to find rapport with a co-worker. Understanding one another’s work habits, communication style, and personality is critical in establishing a connection or creating a feeling of camaraderie. Be receptive to the possibility that differences may actually help your relationship. For example, one of you may be a big-picture thinker, while the other is more detail-oriented. These opposite characteristics can complement and strengthen your rapport.4
4. Devote Time – Choose to view getting the support you need in the workplace as a priority and allocate time to it. A lawyer knows about time; at some point in our careers, many of us measure productivity in six-minute increments. So we can agree that it is incorrect to say that we “do not have time.” In truth, we use time for whatever we think—rightly or wrongly—is important. Spending some time on finding the support you need to be—and feel—included in your organization is time well spent.
5. Learn About the Culture – Just as “no [one] is an island,” any community has its own cultural norms that must be understood—though not necessarily embraced or adopted—if its members are to get the most out of their exchanges and experiences. For example, some law firms and corporate legal workplaces embody a strong athletics-oriented culture that, by its nature, may exclude those who do not follow sports.5 If you have always wondered what “the BCS” is, are curious when (and why) someone yelled “charge” on the court, or find yourself confused when you hear people talk about their last “bogey,” then it might be time to learn something about sports. It is perfectly fine to choose not to learn football, basketball, or golf just to “fit in;” sports do not make a whole person. And even if you are part of “the flow” in this regard, it is a good idea to find out what else people enjoy in their spare time. Learn about what other topics interest the colleagues with whom you want to connect. Always be you, but do not ever stop expanding your knowledge base about a variety of subjects and topics.
6. Make the Most of Informal Opportunities – While organized time with colleagues is critical (as described in tips 2 and 4), so is informal time. Take it upon yourself to engage in informal visiting and chatting with peers and subordinates. Linger behind after a meeting with a colleague. Talk to co-workers during your breaks. Drop by someone’s office at the end of the day to find out what projects they resolved or have pending for the next day. Sit next to someone new during firm or company events. The more casual encounters you have with your teammates, the more engaged you will be in the office and organization.
7. Follow Up – Bring your initiated outreach to its natural conclusion by following up, then reinitiating, then re-concluding, and over and over again. This cycle of reaching out and then following up will establish continuity in your connections with the people that make up your organization. You will be perceived as interested, dependable, and committed. Following up may mean sending an e-mail thanking a person for meeting with you, revisiting a comment made or idea raised when you last talked, or inviting a co-worker to spend time with you again. By connecting, then reconnecting, you will begin to feel less isolated and more included.
These tips are not designed to “put a band-aid” on the systemic problems that exist in organizations where diversity is lacking. Instead, they are meant to help empower those of you who are faced with the daunting task of being the different than others in your group. At MCCA, we believe you can advocate for yourselves individually, while we continue to advocate for diversity collectively. DB
1 See MINORITY CORPORATE COUNSEL ASSOCIATION (MCCA), SUSTAINING PATHWAYS TO DIVERSITY® THE NEXT STEPS IN UNDERSTANDING AND INCREASING DIVERSITY & INCLUSION IN LARGE LAW FIRMS 5 (2009).
2 Id. at 5.
3 See MCCA, CREATING PATHWAYS TO DIVERSITY® MENTORING ACROSS DIFFERENCES: A GUIDE TO CROSS-GENDER AND CROSS-RACE MENTORING 22 (2003).
4 Id. at 22.
5 See LARGE LAW FIRMS, supra note 1, at 24.
Lori L. Garrett is managing director for MCCA’s southeast region. She heads MCCA’s professional development services.
From the May/June 2010 issue of Diversity & The Bar®