Your Reputation is Standing in Your Way

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“Your reputation is all you’ve got,” she said.

How many times did some law professor say that to you? I’m pretty sure I heard it from every professor at least once per semester for three years.

That’s 30+ repetitions of the reputation mantra.

30 times? No, it had to be more like 3,000 times. At least where I went to school, it came up very, very frequently.

My ethics professor, who threatened to flunk me but somehow gave me an A, said it practically every day (at least that’s what I’m told–the reason she nearly flunked me was my general lack of attendance).

The idea of protecting your reputation fills your subconscious mind

At some point it sinks in and becomes a part of us.

Your reputation, while it might not have seemed all that important when you were a 23-year-old law student, becomes important once you realize what it means to be a lawyer.

You come to understand that trust is your stock in trade. You mature and grow into the idea that your reputation truly is your primary asset (you also start eating less pizza and drinking less beer, but that’s a story for another day).

Protecting your reputation makes you less trusting

Trusting others is hard when it comes to delegating work. There’s a lot at stake. The trust you place in others puts your reputation at risk each step of the way.

With each move forward toward a trusting relationship with an employee, a contractor, or a vendor, you put your reputation at greater and greater risk. Each bit of work you hand off makes you vulnerable.

A simple phone call poses a risk. Each time you delegate a client call to an associate, you accept that it might go badly. You worry that the discussion might drive things off track and that the client will think less of you. Sure, it’s easy to delegate an uncomplicated call, but one tricky question from the client can derail the entire conversation. One misjudged comment from a receptionist or intake person can disrupt a relationship you’ve been carefully cultivating for months.

When you’re selling trust, it’s frightening to know that a few poorly chosen words can quickly ruin what you’ve built. Those law school professors haunt us. We embrace the fear they implanted in our minds. Our reputations are worth a great deal to us, because the professors were right.

But behind all of our fastidious care, there’s a dark cloud of dysfunction. The professors taught us an important lesson, but they also left us scarred.

Reluctance to trust costs us

When we hold back on granting trust to our team members, we slow down business growth. When we hesitate to delegate, we hold on to work which might have been done as well, or even better, by someone else in our office. Many of us find ourselves trapped by our ideas about getting things done just right–perfectionism rears its ugly head–and we insist on doing it all ourselves.

We find excuses to hold on to the work because the professor’s words echo in our ears. We rationalize that the associate isn’t ready. We tell ourselves that the call will take only a few minutes. We treat each and every client as the “special” client, meaning we feel compelled to control all communication.

Our fear of damaging our reputations takes on even greater significance as our practices evolve.

We go further and worry that technology might break down, causing damage to our reputation. What if we go paperless and the document is lost? We decide against cloud-based technology because of our fear of hacking. We keep on doing work the old way because the new, the different, the mysterious feels beyond our control.

We avoid outsourcing to vendors who offer to help us become more efficient, because they work off-site and we can’t keep a close eye on what they’re doing. We pass on virtual assistants because they might live in another country. We hesitate to utilize a telephone answering service because they might say the wrong thing.

The professors are right, but are we?

A lawyer seeking to grow income or knowledge or success needs to trust. Growth doesn’t happen without trust. Trust is essential to accepting the help of others, whether they be associates, staff members, contractors, or vendors.

Without trust, delegation won’t happen. The more you trust, the more you delegate, the more you can leverage yourself, and it’s that leverage that allows you to grow.

But delegation requires deciding how much to trust.

We each find a different way to draw the line. We each have a different capacity for trust.

Some are able to loosen their grip on everything–janitorial services, accounting, bookkeeping, marketing, technology, management, the legal work itself, the supervision of the team, and more. They delegate everything.

Others hold on tightly to as much as they can possibly do themselves. They resist letting go. They control it all rigidly even when it piles up, doesn’t get done, and causes them trouble in a multitude of ways. They simply can’t pass it off. You know who you are.

Most of us, thankfully, fall somewhere in the middle of the trust spectrum. But most of us lack the insight to see the price we pay for withholding trust. We do what feels right without doing the math. We operate on gut instinct–with those professorial words echoing in our brains–without considering the cost/benefit of trust vs. delegation.

We don’t necessarily recognize the specific cost of refusing to delegate because of our lack of trust. We just respond, emotionally, when our trust buttons get pushed. We do what we do because it feels right, and because your reputation is all you’ve got.

When our reluctance to trust impacts our capacity to delegate, to extend ourselves, and to grow, we suffer in more ways than most of us overtly calculate. Awareness of the trust math is important. There’s value in understanding what lurks beneath our consciousness.

All I ask of you today is thoughtful deliberation about trust. Those words from our past haunt us. Of course, much of what was hammered into our brains has served us well. But there’s tremendous value in knowing the price of our beliefs and balancing what we feel against what we know is right.

Trust always creates dilemmas. It’s a complex subject. There are no right answers; there are only the answers we find right for ourselves. Trust is a choice–a challenging choice–but it’s one for which we pay a price. Today, try to elevate your awareness of the price you’re paying right now.

“Your reputation is all you’ve got,” she said. She was right.

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