- Wise Words -
Everyone Is Your Judge & Jury: Professional Reputations Travel
by Adriana Eberle
How many times have we heard someone say “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to get things done”?
To add to that, the way that workplaces are presented in the media can show that it’s the tough people who get ahead and those who are good to others get left behind. I am a lawyer and my profession is frequently portrayed on TV, the Movies and Netflix as one where we take no prisoners anytime, anyplace. It can be easy to think that this is how we should be in real life, in the office or even in the courthouse! What I want to say in this column, is that this is not the best way forward and instead building relationships at all levels of an organization that are based on mutual respect is the way to build a career. I am lucky in that I learned this early on and here’s my story.
When I was a young prosecutor, I walked through the courthouse as if it was my kingdom. Now for those of you who aren’t trial attorneys you might think that the Judges are the Kings or Queens of the courthouse, but as any causal listener of the Serial podcast knows, the District Attorney, and in my case the Commonwealth Attorney (I practiced in Virginia), really wields all the power. As an Assistant Commonwealth Attorney, I decided which cases saw the light inside a courtroom and what plea offers to make. As such I didn’t pay much attention to all the "subjects" who actually made my kingdom, the courthouse, function. And there were many of them, janitors, bailiffs, clerks, probation officers, court reporters, and the list went on. Every time I left my office and headed to the courtroom, arms filled with files, ready for battle, my determined high heeled steps could be heard all around me. What couldn’t be heard was a “Good morning, how are you doing?” to my subjects.
I had no idea what anyone outside of the prosecutor’s office thought of me until I transferred to another District Attorney’s office. At my second job, one of the clerks from my previous courthouse was my legal assistant. Her name was Heather. Heather was a great professional, and person, and we quickly became friends. One day while we were chatting, she revealed to me that she had been anxious when she found out I was joining the office and she was going to work for me: “You were really mean to all the clerks. Nobody liked you”.
I was shocked. True, I hadn’t even remembered her as a clerk, but to hear her utter those words was a wake-up call. I guess I never viewed myself as being mean, just busy. I had great relationships with everyone inside the Commonwealth Attorney’s office but I hadn’t really stopped to think about my behavior outside of the office.
Too busy and too important for pleasantries. Back then I was all business. The courthouse was my battle ground and good soldiers had no time for idle chatter. Although I hadn’t meant to be rude, that’s exactly what had happened. Everyone who works at a courthouse, or a not-for-profit, or a corporation, talk. They talk and next thing you know you have unintentionally built a reputation. When I set out for my first job out of law school my goal definitely wasn’t to have a reputation that I was mean, but that’s exactly what happened. I wasn’t a mean person, I was nice to everyone in my immediate office. I just didn’t see the bigger picture. I hadn’t stopped to think about all the work that goes into making a courthouse operate smoothly. We were all cogs in one big wheel.
Reputations are hard to change and can hinder your career. Nobody wants to work with someone who is known to be mean or rude. Politeness, helpfulness, resourcefulness, those are the qualities we want to surround ourselves with. After Heather revealed what my reputation had been to me, I decided to make a change. I wasn’t a mean person. It wasn’t enough to be nice to the people inside my immediate office, I needed to be nice to the people all around me. The security guards, the bailiffs, the court reporters, everyone. That change in attitude not only made my interactions more pleasant for them, it made my work environment better for me. When you hold the door for someone and they smile at you and say thank you, that response makes you feel good. I don’t know the science behind it but I know it feels good.
So, what was my takeaway from Heather’s big reveal?
Business is no excuse. Just because you are busy you don’t get a pass at being rude. Nobody is too busy to say hello or hold an elevator door.
Reputations stick with you. I had no idea that my experience in one prosecutor’s office was going to follow me to a new one. People talk and your future co-workers might end up having an idea formed of what you are like before you even get there.
It feels good to be nice. When I was a pre-teen, I used to get mortified by my dad making jokes with the grocery store cashiers. I was so embarrassed. What I didn’t know then but I do now is that everyone is looking for human interaction. A funny exchange in a crowded elevator, a greeting with a smile, grabbing someone a surprise cup of coffee, those are things that will make everyone’s work day just a little sweeter.
So that’s it, being someone who made space for others did not make me a weaker prosecutor. I was still as determined to do my job as well as I had been when I was the “Queen of the Court”, but knowing I was building relationships with everyone else in the broader team and that it was noticed did make me feel like I was really contributing to others, not just through my work but through my attitude helping make their days better.
Related columns: "Be A Giver", "Embrace Your Manager", "Teamwork As Leadership", "Be The Genuine Article"
Adriana Eberle is a criminal defense attorney in the San Francisco Bay area and can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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