The Howard Hamlin way to manage office conflict

Manuel Yglesias MoraPartner, Mora Yglesias & Associates

Lic. Manuel Yglesias Mora, Partner, Mora, Yglesias y Asociados.

(This article may contain spoilers for the Netflix series Better Call Saul)

Managing office conflicts is difficult, and it can be even more so if your partners and coworkers are also your family. There is so much history, so many non-professional variables involved that you can easily walk into a fire pit for even small things. I have been a partner at my family’s law firm for some time now, and have learned (some times the hard way) to solve conflicts in a peaceful manner… but it is always a challenge.

Recently, we had an especially tricky situation at the office, and I was not being able to communicate or to solve it. I told a friend about it and she told me “Why don’t you try to be Hamlin?”. I was instantly convinced, it was a great idea, so I just approached the situation with a “what would Howard Hamlin do” attitude and voilá, worked like a charm.

Howard Hamlin is a character in the Netflix series Better Call Saul, which is just superb (if you have not watched it yet, do it, it is specially enjoyable for lawyers because, well… it is about lawyers). In the series, Howard Hamlin is the managing partner of a big law firm in Albuquerque, New México, Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill and a total master of managing office conflict.

Howard is portrayed as sort of the classic all powerful lawyer at the top of the food chain: arrogant, self-centered, courteous, imperturbable and a bit unreal. However, after watching the whole 5 seasons and coming back to it, Howard starts to make a lot of sense in a managing partner sort of way. His first big office conflict is having to deal with a partner  (Chuck) who has a disease called electromagnetic hypersensitivity (an illness that many people consider to be made up, in fiction and in real life), and who has a brother (Jimmy) who was a former low level swindler who graduated from law in the University of America Samoa via mail order.  Of course, Jimmy wants to come into the law firm as an associate and Chuck, appalled and saddened by Jimmy’s past, does not want to give Jimmy a chance… but Jimmy eventually lands a huge client and becomes extremely attractive for any law firm.

The way Howard handles the whole thing is incredible, it is very much worth your while to watch it, but I took the task of extracting the biggest traits of Hamlin’s character related to handling office conflict:

Take the blame: There is a big trend of having upper management blame lower management, assistants, secretaries or any other person than the top brass for any mistake that happens. This is not effective. If a task was given to you and you or your team made a mistake, the blame is on you, no matter how much you convince any other person that someone else should have done something better. This would only make everything worse, not only will you be stuck explaining a mistake but also you are being perceived as false or as a bad, ineffective leader. Smart people always notice when someone is making an excuse or beating around the bush. The Hamlin way? Own it, be clear, be short and be prepared to answer questions with transparency. If the Client or boss gets angry, say that you are sorry about the inconvenience once, if you have to fire someone, do it, if you have a solution that does not require approval from anyone, applied and communicate, and if you need approval, get it. In summary, be bravely direct and don’t take it personal. Anyone can make a mistake.

Be firm now: In the day to day hustle of an office, usually the tension can run very high, and the temptation to just let some management non-urgent issues go unsolved is high. Maybe you have a new client who is not happy with your billing system, or maybe you have a partner that is being sensible or stubborn about a specific issue that needs to be solved. Sometimes we can let a situation like this grow until it stresses us out, and we would be then more prone to have some sort of unwanted reaction. The Hamlin way: Deal with the situation at the moment the situation presents itself, or as soon as possible. Usually, conversations related to in-office situations are not necessary complex in the technical aspect, but rather in an emotional aspect (inevitably, many people take things personally), so the best way to deal with those awkward conversations is to have them, lay out your point of view in a professional way and focus on the issue. If you focus on character traits or in emotions, or if you let yourself go, you might create more complications, but if you avoid laying your position because you want to avoid that confrontation, you will not solve the issue. There is no way to make difficult conversations pleasant, but you can always talk with respect. Be assertive.

Do not make assumptions: This may seem repetitive, but usually in managing office conflict, you might stray from the issue at hand and stray into wild territory: assumptions, character flaws that you perceive on other people, old situations, rumors. If you steer towards this way, nothing good will come out of it. It is not necessary, not professional and also, not effective in any way. The Hamlin way? Stick to the facts, stick to what you know, to what you can see, and make your decisions based on that.

Know what you want: An office conflict means something is not working, maybe someone is not performing as expected or maybe you have seen something that may potentially cause a problem in the future. You can either know what is going on or not, but you need to have a general idea of what you want, either an attitude change, information or a modification of a current status quo. The Hamlin way? Communicate the issue with the person or persons involved, in a transparent way. If you are negotiating something, maybe you don’t want to share all your information, but everyone will benefit if you know what you want to when handling an issue.

Howard Hamlin is a fictional character in a made up world, yes, but I think that these “ways” hold some water in the real world. I hope you find them useful and, seriously, watch the show!

Contributing Advisors

Altug GuzeldereManaging Partner, Guzeldere & Balkan Law Firm