What Makes Lawyers Tick?®

Leading Like a Psychologist

Posted in Change Management, Engagement, Leadership, Organizational Behavior, People Skills, Performance, Positive Psychology, Uncategorized

This post was originally published at the Legal Executive Institute website, a ThomsonReuters site, on September 16, 2015:


In my conversations with law firm leaders, I am hearing more and more concern expressed about their partners failing to meet expectations. Here are some examples:

  • “They’ve retired at their desks.”
  • “Everyone’s focused on their own work—no one’s reaching out and collaborating across offices or practices.”
  • “People are more irritable and less cooperative.”
  • “I need them to step up more to do the non-billable activities that will lead to our success.”
  • “Some partners are behaving badly.”
  • “They’re acting like knuckleheads!”

None of this is surprising. Organizational psychology literature is full of findings about the negative psychological consequences of rapid, exponential change. Because we’re trained to spot problems, lawyers actually are primed to suffer these known consequences more severely than people in other occupations.

Law firm leaders need to understand that these symptoms are not unique to your firm but are rather a widespread and well-known phenomena. More importantly, the same body of research has identified a number of simple solutions that can not only inoculate your lawyers against these ills, but can, at the same time, build psychological engagement, strengthen resilience, and increase collaboration.

Law firm leaders need to pay more attention to the psychology of their lawyers, and to the breakthroughs in the science of human performance. You need to lead like a psychologist.

First, let’s look at what doesn’t work to pull your partners out of this kind of slump:

“Convincing” doesn’t work. Giving your partners statistics, articles or data about the downside of their acting this way—in an attempt to show them the logic of changing their behavior—is not likely to make much of a difference.

“Incentivizing” doesn’t work. Money is not a very precise tool to regulate mood. See Dan Pink’s excellent book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us for details about why incentives often go astray.

“Importuning” doesn’t work. Nor does begging, chiding, cajoling, scolding, threatening, demanding or requesting that partners “change”—all are ineffective strategies because they don’t address the root cause.

When you witness a widespread pattern of partners acting passively, irritably, selfishly, etc., chances are good that they are reacting to the uncertainty of change and the stress and anxiety that it raises. Here are some tips to help you deal with this more effectively:

  1. Take as many steps as you can to reduce uncertainty wherever you find it—Give people more information rather than less about finances, schedules, leadership changes, firm successes, new hires, advances towards the firm’s strategic mission, etc. Avoid co-leadership if you can. Don’t waffle or give ambiguous messages—be clear and unambiguous about what you want. Uncertainty is the enemy; clarity is the antidote.
  2. Cultivate a culture of positivity—That’s right, positivity. Let me explain: In the past 15 years, there has been a profusion of research showing that human beings naturally pay more attention to threats, problems, and bad news as opposed to opportunities and good news. Further, a steady diet of this negative mindset has really serious adverse consequences. (And lawyers are even better at hunting for problems than the general public, because of our training.) One implication is that we need to balance out our addiction to bad news with at least three times as much attention to good news. I’m not saying “Think positive instead of negative”—it’s vitally important that we continue paying attention to the threats and problems. And, it’s equally vital that we also make it a conscious habit to also celebrate wins, highlight opportunities, express gratitude for things that are working right, etc. Attention to the good needs to outweigh attention to the bad by at least three-to-one. One simple way to do this, widely used in corporate America, is to end every meeting with a “plus/delta” review: Plus:What worked well? What do we not want to change? What are we proud of? And what should we continue doing, etc.? Delta: What do we want to do differently or better the next time?
  3. Create a culture of gratitude—Research at the University of Michigan shows that organizations whose culture encourages people to be thankful for everyday things actually are more profitable than workplaces where an “entitlement” mindset prevails. Moreover, grateful people sleep better, are less depressed, are kinder and friendlier, more helpful, and more productive. About a dozen years ago, Rodgin Cohen, the Chairman at Sullivan & Cromwell, instituted a “Please/Thank You” rule. The mere step of asking partners to say “Please” and “Thank you” to associates produced game-changing behavior for the better.
  4. Encourage a strengths-based development mindset—Many law firms still adhere to the axiom, “The cream rises to the top”. The belief is that star talent will emerge, and you just have to sit back and wait. Worse, many firms employ an annual or semi-annual performance review that emphasizes fixing deficiencies. There’s no question that a lawyer who hasn’t mastered a critical skill needs to do so. But in the spirit of the 3:1 positivity research noted above, a parallel line of research shows that when your development model places the majority of emphasis on helping an individual to get even better at the things they already do very well (while still fixing those deficiencies that absolutely must be fixed), this primarily strengths-based approach produces dramatically higher levels of performance than a repair-your-deficiencies approach alone.
  5. Foster social connection among your lawyers—Perhaps the most compelling research of all shows the huge power of authentic human connection, something that makes many lawyers squirm. Squirm if you must, but the science on this point is crystal clear and growing in importance every day—informal connections, social networks, authentic relationships—these are your greatest potential assets. Here’s one practical reason why: When a lawyer represents a client, especially in a large, multi-country firm, in today’s complex environment, many transactions will require the expertise of more than just one kind of lawyer. The broader your informal social network, the more likely that you will be successful in identifying the right expertise and in successfully linking those other lawyers with your client. Research by Heidi Gardner at Harvard shows that (i) The more practices a client touches, the more profitable the client is for the firm—collaboration leads to greater profitability; and, (ii) larger social networks lead to greater collaboration. In one example, two partners joined the firm in the same year, had the same kind of practice, and had the same number of annual hours billed, but one had just a few connections, and the other had many connections. The latter’s book of business was 4 times that of the first partner.

There are many other research-based strategies that can inoculate against the stresses of change and uncertainty, and can build enormous potential for productivity and profitability at the same time. But if you start with these five tips, you can make an immediate positive impact in your firm.

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

© 2015 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

Tea Reading or Testing—What’s the Best Way to Hire?

Posted in Assessment, Feedback, Leadership, Personality, Selection

This post was originally published at the Legal Executive Institute website, a ThomsonReuters site, on July 29, 2015:

Amidst the head-spinning change and the increased competition that all law firms face today, there is an increased emphasis on—some say a frenzy to—hire the best people. The cost of making a hiring mistake is growing, and the consequences of doing so take effect even sooner than before.

Many law firms are re-examining their approach to talent acquisition, seeking more efficient, accurate and successful methods.

One topic that always comes up, but raises great anxiety in most lawyers, is the use of psychological testing as a pre-employment selection tool. There are a lot of myths and misunderstandings about this topic, and in this post, I’d like to clear things up and explain why testing should be a part of your hiring strategy.

First, let me address a bias I have. I like testing. I do a lot of it. So naturally I would advocate for its use. But the truth is, the very reason that I use testing so extensively is because 20-plus years ago, when I was investigating the best way to reliably hire lawyers who were a good “fit” with the firm (I’ll explain “fit” in more detail below), I looked at the scientific literature and became convinced that testing, when done properly, is one of the most effective tools out there.

I’m both a lawyer and a psychologist, and the lawyer in me was quite skeptical that any test could tell me something useful. After all, I pride myself on being an astute observer of people, as I’m sure you do—how could a test add anything at all? Plus, what if a candidate “gamed” the test? And wouldn’t testing scare away risk-averse lawyers? But the psychologist in me was curious, and inclined to trust the science.

In the end, it was no contest. I became convinced that a sophisticated test can add valuable information that can be obtained in no other way, and, more important, that information could reduce the risk of making a hiring mistake.

So why should you use testing? To understand this, it will first help to understand a bit about the principles of successful hiring. When you hire a lawyer, you should be interested in more than just academic credentials. We all want the smartest, analytically skilled lawyers for our firms, with great credentials in a particular practice specialty. But smarts and experience alone are not enough to lead to success. In today’s complex environment, lawyers play many new roles beyond just practicing law. That means that new skills are required that we didn’t used to worry about, and this, in turn, means that we have to be much more sophisticated in our hiring practices.

Personality testing provides an enormous advantage here. Personality is one of the broadest and most reliable predictors of a person’s typical style of behaving, and their ultimate performance. Personality traits are stable over time. Everyone has a unique trait “fingerprint”.

The real question here is not whether a candidate has the “best” personality—there really is no such thing. Rather, the question you should be asking is whether the candidate’ personality is a good or bad “fit” with the firm, or with the practice group, or with a particular partner that the candidate will be working with. The idea of “fit” is simple but powerful. The research convincingly shows that the more congruent the fit, the more successful the individual and the longer the tenure of the individual. (It also is correlated with higher job satisfaction.)

Think of testing as a supplement to a series of good interviews. The interviews give you a subjective impression of a candidate. Testing can then give you three important types of objective feedback about fit:

  • Confirm—Suppose all your interviewers agreed that the candidate “seems like a nice person”, and you happen to be looking for lawyers that will fit in with your strong culture of collegiality. Suppose further that you test the candidate, and you learn that the candidate scores very high on a trait called “Sociability”. This basically explains why the interviewers came away with the impression that the candidate is nice—people with high scores on Sociability like connecting with other people, and are often perceived as “nicer” than those with low scores. (by the way, lawyers in general score much lower than the general public average for this trait, so if you find a high-scoring lawyer, it’s a rarity.) Thus, the test helps to “confirm” what the interviewers observed, and gives you a more concrete, scientific basis that underlies the more impressionistic data from the interviews.
  • Clarify—Suppose one interviewer concludes that the candidate seems very cautious, e., reluctant to disclose a lot until the candidate has as much information as possible. Let’s say that a second interviewer describes the candidate as someone who enjoys taking risks. Seems contradictory, no? And yet, this is not an uncommon situation. People are complex. Personality is not linear. Many individuals—including many lawyers—score high on a trait called “Cautiousness” but also score high on a trait called “Risk-Taking”. The first trait explains why someone plays their cards close to their chest; the second trait explains why a person likes variety, novelty and stimulation. This might play out in the world of real behavior as a person who buys junk bonds but reads the prospectus carefully; or, the person who buys a Volvo and always wears a seat belt, but drives it fast. These kinds of paradoxes that show up in seemingly conflicting candidate interviews can often be very satisfactorily reconciled once you see the candidate’s personality test scores. Personality is idiosyncratic, and does not follow rules of logic.
  • Uncover—Tests are also excellent at uncovering qualities that normally don’t show up in an interview. Take “procrastination”. This quality can be quite damaging in a law practice. However, you will rarely learn anything in a job interview that would tip you off that the candidate tends to procrastinate. But a good test can identify trait patterns that raise the potential for procrastination as an issue.

If you don’t like a candidate, a test is not going to change your mind. But if you do like a candidate, you would be well served to add to your subjective impressions the objectivity that a test can provide. No candidate is ever a perfect fit with a firm or a practice. But testing helps you to reduce the risk of making a hiring mistake, and it improves the odds in your favor.

Tests should never be used in a binary way—in other words, you should never make a hiring decision solely on the strength of a test, because personality only explains about one-third of the factors leading to a person’s behavior. But one-third is a large chunk—nothing else has that kind of predictive power. So tests help you chip away at uncertainty, but they always should be used in conjunction with interviews, references, writing samples, problem-solving exercises, or other screening mechanisms.

In the end, talent is the lifeblood of a successful law firm. And testing is one of the best, most scientific ways to find and retain the best talent. It’s time to think about following the success strategy that most of your clients already use.

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

© 2015 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

Making Your Law Firm a Great Place to Work

Posted in Engagement, Leadership, Organizational Behavior, People Skills, Performance

This post was originally published at the Legal Executive Institute website, a ThomsonReuters site, on May 13, 2015:

The Great Place to Work Institute publishes an annual list of the “100 Best Places to Work”. This year, 20 of the companies on the list are in the “Professional Services Firms” category. And of these, five are law firms. This is the first time that law firms have represented fully a quarter of those spots, and from my conversations with law firm leaders, this is a trend that will only accelerate.

It’s smart business to transform your law firm from a mere conventional law practice to a great law firm in which to work. Benefits of doing so include:

  • attracting and retaining Millennials;
  • increasing their competitive advantage over peer firms;
  • counteracting some of the deleterious effects of rapid change;
  • building loyalty;
  • improving client service and satisfaction;
  • strengthening the firm’s brand;
  • attracting laterals (and reducing the cost to acquire laterals);
  • reducing burnout;
  • lengthening associate tenure; and,
  • improving profitability.

When you transform your firm into a great place to work, the psychological engagement of your people soars. And engagement is the attitudinal gold standard that leads to higher productivity, increased profitability, higher work satisfaction, longer tenure and increased “goodmouthing” (as opposed to “badmouthing”) of the workplace.

So what are the things that a law firm leader can do that really matter in creating a great place to work? Here’s my Top 8 list, based on the latest research:

  1. Clear goals and roles—In a world of rapid change, the increasing uncertainty can disrupt high performance in an organization. One proven antidote is to continuously make an effort to reduce uncertainty, to provide clarity to your people. This includes letting people know very clearly what’s expected of them—What do you expect of partners? What does an associate have to do to advance? What are the job expectations of staff? It also includes having clear values that are vigilantly adhered to. It’s especially important that your leaders “walk the talk” here. And role clarity is equally important—who’s in charge, and what exactly are their responsibilities. Try to avoid co-leadership if you possibly can—it creates more uncertainty that often is not offset by the minimal benefits it offers
  2. A Development Mindset—Research shows that when employees feel a sense of mastery, e., competence in a particular skill, they become more engaged. This is especially true for associates who are learning their craft. The key here is that in addition to teaching the mechanics of good lawyering, it’s even more important to focus on developing the individual. Development is about attitude, and attitude matters greatly. When a lawyer or a staff person gets the sense that their mentor is taking a genuine interest in helping them to develop their skills and master their craft—that “my mentor really cares about my becoming an excellent practitioner”—engagement levels soar.
  3. Autonomy—Human beings have a need to feel a sense of autonomy—not just the idea that “no one is telling me what to do”, but more importantly, the idea that “I am being given the freedom to be my true self, my best self, in this environment.” For lawyers, this type of autonomy—often called “self-determination” in the research literature—matters hugely. To build engagement among the ranks of your professional staff, first, avoid micromanaging, even if you can rationalize 16 reasons why you need to do it. Second, adopt a nonjudgmental attitude that communicates that you encourage the uniqueness of the individual to shine through. It’s fine to set demanding expectations about the outcome you want an associate to achieve, but relax your vigilance about how exactly they arrive at that outcome.
  4. Social connection—This is the single most important element—not just in producing engagement, but for all kinds of thriving (life satisfaction, work satisfaction, relationship satisfaction, ) The research shows that regular doses of authentic positive connections with others not only lead to high levels of engagement, but also have a beneficial impact on health, cognitive focus, mood, collaboration, and a range of other desired behaviors. Many lawyers are uncomfortable talking about relationships, connections, or intimacy, seeing it as touchy-feely and irrelevant. My data on the lawyer personality explains this discomfort to a great extent. But it’s important to note that just because these topics make them uncomfortable doesn’t mean that they don’t need human connection. They do, and when you can facilitate more of it in your firm, it has very beneficial effects. This doesn’t mean that you need to have group hugs or start singing Kumbayah every morning. It does mean that removing barriers to social interaction, creating natural gathering places, and encouraging face-to-face communication are all interventions that will lead to increased engagement.
  5. Meaning—Few practices hold the power of creating meaning in one’s work. When you experience meaning in your work, it can lead to feelings of pride and significance. This doesn’t mean that your firm can’t represent financial institutions, or that every client transaction must lead to a spiritual awakening. It doesn’t even mean that your work has to help those less fortunate than you. At its simplest, this need is satisfied when a lawyer sees that words s/he drafted actually end up in the final document, or when a supervising lawyer says “nice job”, or “thanks, this helps check off one important element for this deal.” In other words, the idea that something that I did was useful to someone else, that it mattered, is what’s important. If, in addition, it also leads to good works in the world, that’s a plus, but it doesn’t seem to be indispensable to see a bump up in engagement.
  6. Gratitude—The research on gratitude is also quite compelling. Studies (see, g., Robert Emmons’ books Thanks! and Gratitude Works!) have shown that regular use of gratitude leads to:
    • a reduction in physical symptoms (fewer colds, headaches) (plus lower levels of biomarkers for inflammation);
    • reports of greater life satisfaction;
    • more optimism about the coming week;
    • higher states of alertness, attentiveness, determination and energy, and reports of sustained better moods;
    • fewer absences;
    • more helpful behavior toward others;
    • reports of fewer hassles in peoples’ lives;
    • better quality of sleep;
    • an increased feeling of being connected to others; and
    • higher productivity.

Gratitude is the opposite of entitlement. It connotes a sense of thankfulness for something good that was unexpected or to which you were not necessarily entitled. Workplaces in which a culture of gratitude is cultivated report greater collegiality, higher productivity, and less turnover. Prof. Kim Cameron, at the University of Michigan, in his book Positive Leadership, details some of the positive consequences in those companies that have cultivated a culture of gratitude.

In 2006, the Chair of Sullivan & Cromwell implemented a policy encouraging partners to say “please” and “thank you” to the firm’s associates, and many articles since have detailed the remarkable improvement in the daily work climate and the increase in associate retention since that simple intervention. The cost to implement: $0.00.

  1. Strengths—As lawyers, we’re trained to spot problems. We tend to carry this mindset over to the review process. Annual reviews in most law firms concentrate primarily on reporting deficiencies that need to be repaired. Years of research reveals that a 75/25 focus on strengths is the optimum proportion for high engagement and morale. Note that this ratio does not mean eliminating feedback about deficiencies—far from it. People need to know what they need to improve. And, they need even more encouragement to capitalize on the things they are good at. The Gallup organization has identified 12 “predictor” questions that strongly predict high levels of engagement in the workplace. The 3rd most powerful predictor is this question: “Do you have an opportunity to do what you do best every day?”Research by Martin Seligman and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania has shown that people who get to use their strengths in creative new ways have less depressive thinking and greater work satisfaction. There are hundreds of similar studies showing that when a person concentrates on getting even better at his/her strengths (e., “leveraging” those strengths), the result is genuine increases in life satisfaction and a whole host of associated positive improvements, both attitudinal and behavioral.
  2. Fairness—Finally, research by Sirota Consulting and others has shown that people want to be treated fairly, and while fairness doesn’t “cause” engagement, the perception that one has been unfairlytreated can definitely destroy engagement. Wise law firm leaders will be particularly attentive to how their policy decisions are perceived in terms of fairness—as seen through the eyes of those who are affected by the policy decisions.

Most of these principles and practices are not very complicated, cost very little or nothing to implement, and are relatively easy to do. What makes them challenging is that all of them can easily be seen as “touchy-feely” (and thus discredited) by hard-edged, skeptical lawyers. Fifteen years ago, we had very little hard data about any of these practices, so one could hardly blame the eyeball-rollers. But in the past decade-and-a-half, an explosion of high-quality, methodologically sound scientific research has produced all of these findings I’ve reported on.

The broad sweep of this research tells us that treating employees with dignity, and adopting a mindset of wanting to genuinely help them to thrive, helping them to connect with others in authentic ways, and bringing out the best in people—despite our problem-focused training—is the secret formula to a creating a great place to work.

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

© 2015 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

Leading Lawyers: Your Most Potent Tool is Your Mindset

Posted in Change Management, Influence, Leadership, People Skills

This post was originally published at the Legal Executive Institute website, a ThomsonReuters site, on April 15, 2015:

Are you a practicing lawyer who is transitioning into a leadership role? Whether it’s as a managing partner, practice group leader, office managing partner, or executive committee member—in all cases, to be effective as a leader, you need to make a significant shift in your mindset in several ways.

First, many lawyer-leaders default to the role of “manager”—making sure that important things get done in a regular and predictable way (timesheets are turned in, mentoring younger lawyers takes place, work is assigned rationally, etc.). There is certainly a need for management, but today the greater need in law firms is for leadership, i.e., determining what direction your constituents should go in, and then encouraging them to voluntarily go there. So in addition to thinking like a manager, you also have to think like a leader.

Leadership is a natural response to change. When making decisions, leaders, by definition, never have all the information they’d like to have. Thus they depend on establishing credibility and a trust relationship with their constituents. This, in turn, requires a large dose of emotional intelligence and other relationship-building skills. These are learnable skills, and lawyer-leaders need to increase their competence in these areas.

The second and more important mindset shift that you need to make is an extension of the first. You need to shift your mindset about how best to influence people.

In your role as “lawyer”, you have been trained to influence others using an “advocacy” model, rather than a “behavioral influence” model. In the advocacy model, we influence by marshaling a series of persuasive syllogisms with which we regale the object of our influence in the hope that the force of logic will persuade them to our point of view. In a litigation, this is a winning strategy—but mainly because there is a neutral third party present to adjudicate the issue between adversaries. If you try the same technique with one of your partners, you may have noticed that the typical response is not capitulation. Instead, the other person will dig in their heels, harden their previous position, and marshal their own best arguments about why you’re wrong and why their view should prevail. Advocacy as an influencing tool is utterly ineffective and inadvisable as a leadership strategy when your mission is to effectively lead other lawyers.

What does work? A “behavioral influence” approach. Over the past 30 years, considerable attention has been paid by psychologists to the methods used by highly effective influencers in society—advertisers, fundraisers, public relations experts, lobbyists, and business leaders. The methods of these “natural persuaders” have been analyzed and codified, and it turns out that all of them rely on just a few simple strategies that are very effective in getting large groups of people to do what the influencer seeks.

Law firm leaders need to understand these natural pillars of influence. They include role modeling, social proof, commitment and consistency, and similarity.

Role modeling: We are all wired to pay more attention to leaders and other authorities than to our peers. In particular, we pay far more attention to what leaders do than to what they say. So the first rule of influence is that a leader must “walk the talk.” You can’t ask others to turn in their timesheets on time when you don’t turn your own in on time. This is a far more powerful principle than the timesheet example might lead you to conclude. If you are asking people to try behaving in a new way, it is imperative that you take the lead in doing the new behavior yourself. It also helps to enlist other highly respected and visible firm leaders as well—there’s strength in numbers.

Social proof: Also known as “the bandwagon effect”, this is more or less a first cousin to the role modeling principle. If role modeling tells us that rank and file lawyers will look up to leaders, social proof tells us that they also look to their peers to obtain guidance about what the proper behavior should be. This is especially true during times of great change such as we’re going through now—the ambiguity that results from a rapidly changing environment increases people’s need to look around and see how others are behaving.

The lesson here is to enlist thought leaders—lawyers that others look up to but who are considered peers of the other partners—and one by one, make a personal plea to each of them to adopt the desired new behavior. A small number of thought leaders adopting a new behavior is a powerful inducement to all the other partners to adopt those behaviors too.

Commitment and consistency: Human beings like being consistent. We don’t like the tension that exists when we believe we are one kind of person and then we behave as if we’re another kind of person. When that kind of discrepancy occurs, there is great psychological pressure to bring belief and behavior into alignment. In some cases, changing one’s behavior is the easier path; in others, changing one’s belief is the easier way.

The main point is that if you can get your partners to try a small version of a larger behavior, that “toe in the water” often makes it much easier for people to move on and adopt the full-blown behavior that you’re hoping they’ll adopt. So start small. Begin with little steps, and build from there.

Similarity: The last principle is based on the idea that we are much more likely to allow ourselves to be influenced when we believe that the person asking us to change is just like us. So before you make a request of your partners to do something new or different, you first should consider showing them how others just like them have already done so. This principle dovetails nicely with the “social proof” principle—although they are technically two separate and distinct psychological patterns, they work very well together, and often overlap.

If you begin using these behavioral influence methods instead of relying on logic alone, your ability to lead other lawyers will grow commensurately.

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

© 2015 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

Lawyers Are Skeptical — Can You Believe It???

Posted in Leadership, Personality

This post is a reprint of an article that I wrote for the ABA’s “Legal Career Central” website. It was originally published on November 15, 2015:

The Lawyer Personality: Why Lawyers Are Skeptical

I’ve been gathering data on lawyers’ personalities since the early 1980’s. Personality traits are typically measured on a percentile scale ranging from zero % to 100%. When large samples of the general public are tested, individuals’ scores on a given trait typically form a classic bell curve, with the mean average for any given trait hovering around the 50th percentile. But lawyers are different. As I have written about elsewhere, there are a number of traits on which lawyers tend to score much higher or much lower than the general public—in short, we’re outliers. The most extreme of all these outlier traits—the one on which lawyers consistently score higher (i.e., above the mean) than all the others—is Skepticism.

People with a very high Skepticism score tend to look at the world through a “glass half empty” lens—they focus on problems rather than on what’s working well; they tend toward the suspicious; they assume the worst, and rarely give others the “benefit of the doubt”. They wonder what another person’s “real” motive might be for any action that person takes. They question any assertion made by another person. And they tend to be slower to trust others.

On the surface, these may sound like negative thoughts and behaviors. However, considering the nature of what lawyers do for a living, these are quite functional and make a lot of sense. Many aspects of law practice require lawyers to scrutinize documents, transactions, actual or potential adversaries, deals, proposed actions, and the like, in order to protect their client. Lawyers are always asking, “What could possibly go wrong?” “What errors exist?” “Are there any potential sources of liability?” “Who might be at fault?” “Are there any exceptions to what has been asserted?” And, “Is there anything we should know about that hasn’t been disclosed?”

These questions, collectively, are often thought of as “critical thinking”. There is no doubt that they enable a lawyer to protect the client. But these days, lawyers wear many other hats that they didn’t used to wear—mentor, supervisor, manager, leader, rainmaker, committee chair, etc. And in all these newer roles, “critical thinking” – which in these other contexts can really be thought of as “negative thinking” – can actually get in the way. In fact, a steady diet of negative thinking can actually burn in neural pathways in the brain that deeply habituate a negative, pessimistic mindset, a filtering system that insures that the lawyer will see the half-empty glass and may even miss many of the half-full glasses.

Despite the need for more flexibility than ever before (specifically, there’s a need for lawyers to be able to “turn on” or “turn off” the Skeptical mindset), the fact remains that in today’s law practice climate, there are a number of reasons that high Skepticism is so common among lawyers and is likely to remain that way for some time to come.

First, because the personality trait of Skepticism provides an important advantage to any lawyer by making critical thinking more natural and easier, people with high levels of Skepticism are more likely to be attracted to the law in the first place. It feels more like a natural fit than many other jobs might. The more your personality aligns with the work you regularly do, the more likely you are to rate your job as satisfying. So the legal profession starts out with an overrepresentation of skeptics. (I’m using the word “overrepresentation” in the sense that statisticians use it—there are more high Skeptics in law than would be expected, based on their distribution in the general population.)

Second, for the same reason as above—i.e., the degree of “fit” between the person and the job—those lawyers with low Skepticism scores tend to drop out of law school and out of law practice (usually in their early years) at a higher rate than do those with high Skepticism scores. This “concentrates the herd” and results in a more overall skeptical cohort of lawyers who remain in practice.

Finally, Skepticism increases over time because lawyers work in a Skeptical environment. Every personality trait is partly dispositional (i.e., influenced by genes) and partly learned. Recent research suggests that genetics provide a larger contribution than previously suspected; however, Skepticism is an exception to that tendency—it is a trait that is significantly influenced by one’s environment. This means that the longer a lawyer works in a workplace in which the majority of his/her colleagues think and talk in Skeptical ways, the more Skeptical s/he will become over time.

These three forces are all moving in the same direction, fostering a culture of Skepticism in most law firms and a pattern of Skepticism in most lawyers. Over time, this becomes just the normal background “noise” and is taken for granted. Plus, it’s rare to find any counterbalancing force in most law firms that rewards “accepting” thinking or
trusting behavior (the opposites of Skepticism). Skepticism is a one-way street, which is why it seems so normal to most lawyers, and why it’s so hard for others—friends, spouses, staff, even clients—to shake lawyers out of their Skeptical mindset, even though, as noted above, in the newer roles that lawyers play today, lowering Skepticism and increasing accepting and trusting behavior is a growing necessity.

If, after reading this post, you find yourself taking my ideas with a grain of salt, you can begin to see the problem . . .

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

© 2015 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

Let the Blogging Resume . . .

Posted in Housekeeping Posts

To those of you who have been followers of my blog, I offer an apology for going silent. It’s been almost two years since my last post here. That hiatus is the result of a combination of factors–(1) a very busy consulting practice; (2) some personal issues (aging parents) that had higher priority; and (3) I’ve been blogging over at the ThomsonReuters Legal Executive Institute website. For your convenience, I’ll be posting my LEI blog posts here shortly.

But I also have lots of additional ideas that I’ll be writing about in this space. So let the blogging resume.

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

© 2015 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

The Psychologically Savvy Leader

Posted in Change Management, Leadership, Organizational Behavior, People Skills, Resilience, Self-Management

In talking to law firm leaders these days, what I am hearing most frequently are their concerns about disruptive change and its impact on their ability to maintain a profitable and competitive firm.

One consequence of this increased focus on change is that rank-and-file partners are being asked to do more with less—to take on additional roles, step up their performance, be better at the things they never had to be good at before.

This has two psychological consequences: (1) It increases the level of stress that partners are under, and (2) it makes it imperative that they develop better “people” skills. (Most of these newer roles depend on interpersonal skill for their success.) Luckily, doing the second thing well can mitigate the first thing.

Lawyers have never been big fans of people skills. Culturally, the legal profession has historically relegated people skills to an unwelcome corner of the room. Even today, many lawyers belittle, dismiss, devalue and mock any mention of such skills.

This is ironic, because these skills are more essential to your firm’s survival today, and because more than ever before, there is solid scientific evidence emerging that shows how powerful and central these skills are to the superior performance of business organizations.

These days, there are at least four specific types of “people” skills at which the average partner, and most certainly any law firm leader, should become more skilled:

  • Teaming Skills: In today’s hyper-competitive and increasingly complex climate, successful law firms are placing more emphasis on lawyers working together in teams. These include client teams, industry teams, marketing teams, leadership teams, practice sub-specialty teams, and more.When people work together on a joint project, it evokes known psychological forces that don’t normally emerge when an individual is working alone. Examples include peer pressure, the need to be included, factionalization, groupthink, and relaxation of responsibility. Both team leaders and members need to understand group dynamics—both to avoid the dysfunctionality that lack of awareness of these principles can bring, and on the positive side, to boost performance to potentially extraordinary levels.
  • Leadership & Change Management Skills: Every partner today has to not only practice law, but also has to manage relationships, influence subordinates, peers and leaders within the firm, and influence clients and others outside the firm. And those in formal leadership roles have an even greater need to understand these skills. There is a huge and growing body of scientific knowledge about how to successfully lead and influence others, especially in the face of rapid change. Lawyers need to understand these principles. Let me illustrate with one salient example: as lawyers, we’re trained to use the adversarial model in our roles as lawyers. That is, our method of influencing others is to stake out a position and then advance didactic points which we hope are more cogent and compelling than those of the “adversary”.The problem with this approach is that it is designed to be used inside a system with a set of rules, a “game” of sorts—and it requires a neutral adjudicator who is trained in the same rules for one of us to be successful. This is exactly the structure of litigation, but this model doesn’t work at all when you’re trying to get a peer on board with your idea for how to pitch a client or to debate the merits of bringing on a lateral. You may have noticed that whenever lawyer “A” advances an argument, it rarely has the effect of convincing lawyer “B”. Rather, it impels lawyer “B” to harden his own position and to point out the flaws in partner “A”’s position. When the task is to influence your peers inside the firm, a more subtle, psychologically savvy set of skills needs to be deployed.
  • Emotional Intelligence Skills:  In 1988, the construct of “Emotional Intelligence” was proposed by two psychologists, Jack Mayer and Peter Salovey. Twenty-five years later, hundreds of scientific studies have shown that EI is a distinct set of skills, that it is learnable, and that these skills are powerful predictors of most of the desired business outcomes that we all want. Being an intellectually smart lawyer is the mere table stakes to get into the game of Big Law. To succeed on a sustained basis, today’s lawyer needs to develop EI skills. Savvy law firm leaders recognize this, yet few law firms have made a commitment to teach these skills to their lawyers. EI skills are harder to teach and learn than legal principles. Think of EI skills as more about “procedure” than “substance”. In other words, you can’t just sit in a lecture or read a book about Emotional Intelligence and then expect to be able to behave in a more emotionally intelligent way. Rather, these are behavioral skills, and they can only be learned by employing an “adult learning” methodology that includes at least the following steps:
    • See the skill demonstrated
    • Try it yourself
    • Receive high quality operational feedback
    • Make course corrections and try it again
    • Repeat as needed
    • Tie it to a practical, meaningful goal
    • Build layers of skill complexity, one layer at a time
    • Practice and rehearse on a regular basis until the skill becomes second nature

This last bullet is the most important and the most daunting for many lawyers. It’s the most important because in order to acquire a skill and develop it to a high level, a person has to burn new neural pathways in the brain. This takes time and repetition, and it means that there will be a period of discomfort and poor performance before there is mastery. Many lawyers become quite uncomfortable doing any behavior at which they don’t immediately feel competent. (See Tom DeLong’s new book Flying Without A Net – apparently this pattern is common not only to lawyers but to many other “high need for achievement” professionals.)

Here are the four emotional intelligence skills:

  1. Accurately Identifying and Labeling Emotions: The ability to notice and accurately label emotions, in both yourself and another person, is critical to any role involving interactions with others—this includes leadership, business development, coaching, mentoring, supervising, managing, working on a team, persuading, influencing, and attending a partners meeting.
  2. Using Mood as a Strategic Tool: Mood refers to emotions extended over time. Our emotions influence our thoughts, and our thoughts influence our emotions. By getting into a particular mood, you can actually enhance your efficacy at performing certain cognitive tasks, like generating creative ideas, paying attention to details, problem-solving, and analyzing data. There is an optimum mood for each of these tasks. If you understand mood, and if you know how to readily get into the appropriate mood, you can perform the related task better. Lawyers who know how to adopt the right mood will have a cognitive edge over those who don’t.
  3. Accurately Understanding and Predicting Emotions: There are countless situations in any workplace in which an individual, e.g., a leader, wishes to influence another person. You will be much more successful in doing so if you have a proper understanding of human nature, particularly if you understand the natural emotional response that is likely for a given scenario. How might a partner react if you de-equitize her? How can you give someone critical feedback without de-motivating them? How can you successfully encourage a reluctant partner to develop more business? The more you can accurately understand and predict emotional reactions, the more successfully you can navigate these scenarios.
  4. Regulating EmotionsYour Own and Others’:  Recent neuropsychological research shows that we had it all wrong—emotions are not the opposite of thoughts—they’re indispensably intertwined, both in our brain structure and our behavior. Many lawyers grew up with the message that emotions are bad, it’s better not to show them, and being logical, detached and objective is the best way to conduct yourself. Thinking is seen as a sign of strength; emotional displays are seen as a sign of weakness. It turns out that none of this is accurate. It’s time to hit the re-set button on this one. Science has also shown us that whenever an emotion is expressed, it is preceded by a thought. Thoughts lead to emotions. If you change your thoughts, you will change your emotional responses. We have all been in situations where we expressed a particular emotion and in hindsight realized that it would have been better not to have done so. And we’ve all been in situations where we refrained from expressing an emotion that we felt, and in hindsight wished we had expressed it. Emotional Regulation is the skill that allows us to do both of these things. In other words, a person with good emotional regulation skills has learned how to consciously make a choice in that small space between the time that they feel and emotion and the time that they express it behaviorally. We all have the capacity to choose or regulate our emotional responses, and doing so can keep us out of trouble and also help us sustain important relationships. The fly in the ointment is that not everyone has developed this capacity. It’s a skill, and it  can be taught and learned.  In a law firm, leaders without this skill can easily alienate their constituents. This skill also affects the practice of law—in firms where I have worked with their highest performing partners, they routinely are better skilled at emotional regulation than their average counterparts.In short, today lawyers need all four emotional intelligence skills in order to maximize their potential for success.
  • Resilience-Building Skills: The final skillset is perhaps the most important. I have written elsewhere about the importance of Resilience, and about the widespread lack of it among lawyers, according to our personality research data. Low Resilience makes lawyers thin-skinned and defensive, and more vulnerable to prolonged negative emotional responses to setbacks. But it has another, more pernicious, impact: in a time of great change such as we currently face, the low Resilience lawyer is at greater risk of suffering stress and the other negative consequences of rapid change, particularly change that we don’t feel we can control. Lawyers today need to learn how to build their Resilience skills. Doing so has a double benefit—first, it reduces their poor response to change, stress, and adversity, and further it helps toughen them so that they don’t  have as many setbacks in the first place. It also helps them recover faster when they do have a setback. But the second benefit is the more important one—the very same Resilience-building techniques that protect you from adversity also build positive resources. Lawyers who have learned how to boost their psychological Resilience are more likely to be collaborative, grateful, friendly, less critical, more open-minded, more social and more optimistic. And these characteristics, in turn, are all predictors of greater success in the workplace, and greater life satisfaction. Thus, building Resilience skills is the most leveraged of the four psychological skills under discussion here. (Don’t these sound very similar to the kinds of behaviors we want all of our partners to exhibit today?)

To summarize, in today’s rapidly changing world, lawyers who want to gain a competitive advantage and increase their potential for success will do well to learn the skills of . . .

  • Teaming
  • Leadership & Change Management
  • Emotional Intelligence; and,
  • Resilience

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

© 2013 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

We need a Chief Resilience Officer

Posted in Change Management, Leadership, Positive Psychology, Resilience

As I’ve talked with law firm leaders over the past six months, increasingly I’ve heard them describe a troubling list of symptoms that they’re seeing in their lawyers. In their own words, here’s what they’re observing:

  • Malaise, complacency, burnout, an attitude of hopelessness, weariness, a “giving up” mindset;
  • Increased conflict; not playing nicely in the sandbox;
  • Failure to reach out to the best talent to staff a matter—sticking instead with their most familiar colleagues;
  • Increased evidence of low resilience responses—irritability, defensiveness, thin-skinned-ness, easily hurt, oversensitive;
  • Disengagement; passivity; biding their time;
  • A glass-half-empty mindset; not noticing or seeing but disparaging business development opportunities; increasing cynicism; a feeling that “it’s not worth the bother”;
  • Perfectionism—“If I can’t do it perfectly, I won’t do anything at all;” making excuses for not putting out the effort;
  • Diminished creativity;
  • And people being less proactive in using their “investment time”—waiting for work to come to them instead of seeking it out.

These are the classic signs of “learned helplessness.” First described by Dr. Martin Seligman, a leading psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania this is a well known condition in which individuals experience not having control over their destiny and then over-generalize to conclude that “nothing I do matters, so I might as well not try.” Studies show that this mindset is a potential precursor to depression in some individuals.

Learned helplessness, as illustrated by the laundry list above, is a common response to rapid, nonstop change and the uncertainty that comes with it. We as human beings are designed for stability and predictability. Living in a constant state of churn causes stress to anyone. But lawyers are even more vulnerable to these effects for two main reasons:

1)  Our negative mindset (which is required for practicing law) amplifies the negative psychological consequences of change; and,

2)   The personality traits that are common to successful lawyers similarly amplify these negative consequences of change.

For example, we have a much higher need for Autonomy than average, i.e., we like being in control. So when a lot of stuff outside our doors is changing and we don’t feel like we have much control over those changes, our need for Autonomy is compromised and our stress increases.

There is a bright spot in all of this. Research has shown that we can learn to buffer the negative effects of change-induced stress through a number of effective resilience-building strategies, mostly cognitive ones. These include optimizing social connections and adopting a practice of explaining adverse events in our mind using a “glass half full” cognitive strategy (“realistic optimism”), among others.

If you do nothing to combat these symptoms, what impact will they have on your success as a law firm? And can anything be done to improve the situation?

Let’s look at the impact first. A recent Gallup poll found that only 30% of the American workforce are currently psychologically “engaged” workers. Can you imagine how low this number must be for lawyers?

Before you dismiss “engagement” as a minor league “soft” metric, you should be aware that engagement matters—a lot. Study after study shows a direct link between high engagement and high profitability. Some firms say, “Let’s get our revenue production up first, then we’ll worry about engagement.” But this may not actually be the best strategy.

Jim Collins, in his research reported in Built to Last, found that the consistently top-performing companies had a “both/and” culture. For example, they focused on both profitability and on building a lasting something-or-other. In other words, they were mission-driven and also kept their eye on the financial ball—“both/and”. It’s a mistake to focus just on profits or revenue, especially if by doing so you create a negative mindset like those in the initial laundry list above.

So should you focus mainly on revenue-generation and then pay a little bit of attention to increasing employee engagement? There is gathering evidence that the psychological climate of the workplace plays a much more important role in the ultimate level of profitability, productivity, and client satisfaction than previously believed.

By “psychological climate”, I’m talking about the kind of employee mindset that you foster. How do people who work in your firm feel? Do they feel motivated? Respected? Cared for? Fairly treated? Do they feel like their work is valued? Do they feel like management is genuinely interested in the development of their competence? Is the culture one of tolerance of mistakes? (Innovation blossoms in such a culture.) Do the firm’s values – the ones you actually live – include gratitude, compassion or giving over receiving?

Each of these elements has been investigated by social scientists in the past decade and shown to have a direct correlation with profitability, productivity or client satisfaction (or all three.) Correlation is not the same as causation, but there is even some fairly strong evidence that suggests that these factors are indeed causative, or at least predictive, of these desired outcomes.

In short—and this next point is so easy to misquote out of context that I almost hesitate to make it, but here goes—Happy people generate higher profits. Several recent books and articles have documented this and related concepts. See, for example, Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage; Martin Seligman’s Flourish; and the Jan-Feb 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review, the cover story of which was entitled “The Value of Happiness: How Employee Well-Being Drives Profits.”

Let’s face it—this is a hard-sell to lawyers. Most of us are just too skeptical to accept this at face value. Many lawyers will dismiss this news out of hand, or marginalize it by sarcastically labeling it as “Kumbayah management” or complaining that “now you want to create a hugfest”.

But smart leaders know better than that. These ideas are backed up by extensive empirical science. The law firm that successfully implements these practices can gain a decided competitive advantage over its more skeptical peers. Law is a people business—our assets are our people. So it stands to reason that bringing out the best in our people is a surefire formula for success. Firms that are serious about this need to have a dedicated internal champion—a “Chief Resilience Officer”—to maintain a steady focus on building an engaged workforce. This needs to comprise both focus on developing individuals as well as creating the kinds of resources and environment in which engaged employees can thrive.

There are already many experiments under way, from law firms that regularly conduct engagement surveys of their people to firms that have begun teaching Resilience skills to their lawyers. (See my other posts for some of these resilience-building techniques.)

The real question is: Even if these practice work in most businesses, are lawyers too skeptical and negative for them to adopt these practices, or to benefit from them if they are adopted? The jury is still out here, but it will be an interesting trajectory to follow.

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

© 2013 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

Succession Planning for Baby Boomer Leaders

Posted in Leadership

Baby Boomers are beginning to retire. In the legal profession, one microcosm of that trend is that managing partners are beginning to retire. In the old days, managing partners were mainly full-time lawyers who also carried out administrative responsibilities part-time. But in more recent years, the role has grown into a full-blown leadership role with much greater demands.

Many of the firm leaders who have announced their upcoming retirements have been in office for ten years or more, some even longer. Many firms are now facing the need to cope with succession issues, either scrambling to replace a leader who is stepping down, or hopefully planning for one whose exit from the role is imminent or inevitable.

The ideas on succession planning that follow come largely from a recent gathering of law firm leaders. I was fortunate to be invited to the annual conference at Pebble Beach that Brad Hildebrandt and Thomson Reuters sponsor for approximately 120 leaders of large law firms. One of the panel discussions included the following participants:

  • Ralph Baxter, Chairman Emeritus, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP
  • Geoffrey Green, former Chairman of Ashurst LLP (now Senior Consultant – Asia)
  • Fran Milone, Chairman & CEO, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP
  • Keith Wetmore, Chair Emeritus, Morrison & Foerster LLP
  • Mitchell Zuklie, Chairman, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP
  • Andy Baker, Managing Partner, Baker Botts LLP

Both Mitch Zuklie and Andy Baker recently stepped into their roles. The others have all either stepped down or have announced that they are doing so.

In no particular order, here are some of the insights offered by the panel, along with some of their cautions:

  • When a leader announces that s/he is stepping down, the rank-and-file lawyers will naturally begin asking, “Can we trust the new person?” This will be particularly evident if the incumbent has served a long term.
  • When a Baby Boomer leader steps down, many Baby Boomer partners in the firm will likely begin asking themselves, “Is this the time for me to retire too?” Firms that are considering succession planning should take this into account.
  • When possible, it’s a good idea to identify a new leader at least 6 months before s/he will need to actually take over the reins. Keep in mind that not only does the incoming leader need to learn the ropes, but his/her new leadership team will also have a learning curve. While the new leader has likely already been deeply involved in the details of leading the firm before being selected to succeed the incumbent, this may not be true for every member of the new leadership team.
  • It’s absolutely critical to build buy-in with the partners for the new leader. This becomes even more important if the “rules of the game” are going to change in some way when the new leader takes over. This could include a shift from a single leader to a bifurcated leadership arrangement; a re-shuffling of practice group organization; new approach to comp; etc.
  • Many of the panel members mentioned how important it is to maintain the firm’s culture through the transition period.
  • Maintaining the perception of fairness is another theme that was mentioned several times.
  • There were several “timing” issues that were mentioned: (1) Should there be term limits for a new leader? (2) If you are stepping into a role in which your incumbent led the firm for ten years or more, what expectations has this tacitly set up among your partners? (3) Considering that the pace of change has quickened dramatically in the past few years, will a new leader ever serve as long as the currently retiring generation has? Or will we see shortened terms just because of the increasingly changing dynamics? Can you prepare for this?
  • Has the firm grown or changed significantly since the incumbent started his/her original term? If so, maybe the firm should examine its assumptions about leadership structure and responsibilities, leadership competencies, and related issues, in thinking about the next leader.
  • Anticipate and deal with “Lame-Duck-ism”. “As soon as your new title is announced, all eyes will shift to the new guy.”
  • At MoFo, the Chair who steps down becomes the head of the Comp Committee. This allows a degree of continuity and sends a signal that the former leader will “still be in a position to keep his promises”.
  • Should an incumbent recommend his/her own successor? What are the pros and cons of doing so?
  • If your firm has a multi-country footprint, what are the pros and cons of choosing your next leader from one of the other countries in which you are present?
  • Every leader who steps down has “unfinished business.” Some of this unfinished business involves perennial problems that seem intractable and will always be there; some involves problems that are fixable and must be resolved before you go; and some involve good ideas that you should definitely pass on to your successor to consider.
  • The panel concluded that every firm is different, and there is no “one size fits all” governance structure that works for every firm.
  • The panelists agreed that it’s a good idea to look at structure first—given the conditions that we face today, what’s the best governance structure for our firm? Having determined this, then consider who should actually fill the role.
  • Most of the panelists endorsed the importance of the new leader having many conversations with the partners to discuss the transition, listen to their input, build trust, and foster continuity.
  • One panelist mentioned that once you’re in transition—on the way out—in some ways, you may have more latitude to “clean up stuff” – unfinished business – because you no longer need worry about the political implications.
  • One panelist mentioned that “When you go through your first partner retreat, that’s when you really take over, you make your mark.”
  • If you leave on your own timing, you get to negotiate your own title and perks.
  • There was some discussion about whether it’s a good idea or not for an outgoing leader to become Emeritus. On the one hand, it can be helpful to the new leader, reassuring to the firm, and useful in a number of ways. On the other hand, there is always the risk that partners will try to go through the Emeritus leader instead of the new incumbent, or that the Emeritus leader will interfere with the new leader’s ability to build credibility. Each firm has to work out how this evolves.

These are just some of the issues to consider when the top leader’s time to step down is approaching. Some of these issues also apply to other leaders such as practice group leaders or office heads. But one thing that everyone can agree on is that if you have the luxury of doing so, planning for succession far in advance is significantly better than scrambling at the last minute, even despite the fear of “Lame-Duck-ism”.

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

© 2013 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

Accountability 101 – Part four

Posted in Accountability, Change Management

In three previous posts, I’ve discussed the psychology of how to hold partners accountable. I focused primarily on approaches that work well with individuals.

In this post, I want to introduce you to three approaches that are more strategic, and work well with teams, groups or an entire firm. As a consequence, they have broader reach and impact.

Each one is based on relatively recent research and has a sound, scientific foundation. Each one has been used in conventional corporate settings with remarkably positive outcomes—results have often been achieved that far exceeded even the best of expectations. Each has been documented in the professional literature. Two of them come from recent research on the impact of positive emotions—Skeptic alert: We know that most lawyers are dismissive of anything that even faintly resembles an emotion—even if it’s deeply rooted in science—and so be forewarned that it may be much harder to get your partners to take these three practices seriously in a law firm, even though they are each more powerful than the interventions I’ve previously written about.

Nevertheless, for those of you looking to take a bold step, to surpass the competition, to be a pioneer instead of waiting to see what other law firms have done, I commend each of these to you as a way of achieving an almost insurmountable competitive advantage.

The three approaches are:

  1. Encourage a 3:1 Positivity Ratio (Foster a steady diet of mostly positive emotions to counter the normal negativity that’s natural for lawyers)
  2. Use “Elevation” Principles (Bring out the best in your people, and gain the inevitable payoffs for doing so); and,
  3. Follow the “4DX” Model (Apply the 4-step model developed by Franklin Covey to get your people engaged in executing really important goals)

Here’s a description of each:

1. Encourage a 3:1 Positivity Ratio:  Barbara Frederickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, has conducted research for many years on the use of positive emotions, their effects, why they exist from an evolutionary perspective, what the differences are among the various positive emotions, and what their payoffs are. With the help of psychologist/mathematician Marcial Losada, she discovered that individuals who regularly experience a ratio of 3 positive emotions to every 1 negative emotion—what they call the “3:1 Positivity Ratio”—experience a quantum leap in well-being—they experience significantly greater job satisfaction, life satisfaction, relationships, work effectiveness, and a whole range of other payoffs. Individuals with a 3:1 or higher Positivity Ratio thrive; individuals with a Positivity Ratio below 3:1 languish. This phenomenon is interesting because it is quantum, not linear. Earlier research by Roy Baumeister and others has shown that human beings have a built-in negativity bias, and as a result, the negative will normally outweigh the positive when there are equal amounts of each. So it takes a substantially larger quantity of positive emotion to produce any beneficial effects.

This finding is part of a broader field called “Positive Psychology”. Don’t confuse this label with “positive thinking” and all the sugar-coated ideas that surround that phrase—Positive Psychology is at the other end of the spectrum. It’s based on the scientifically rigorous study of the psychological factors that make life worth living.

Since World War II, the main focus of psychology has been identifying what causes psychological problems and how to alleviate them. About 15 years ago, a group of psychologists got together and concluded that more attention needed to be paid to the scientific study of what causes psychological well-being and in what ways it can be taught to others. Focusing on both work satisfaction and overall life satisfaction, this new area of psychology has grown rapidly, and builds on both field research and breakthroughs in cognitive neuroscience such as functional magnetic resonance imaging which lets scientists study the actual functioning of the brain in real time at a biological level. These new approaches add a level of precision and rigor that give us much higher confidence in the findings that are emerging.

Frederickson’s and Losada’s work represent a major contribution to this canon. Several applications of their research have been reported in other professions and businesses with dramatic effects. For example, there is a book that will be coming out later this year that details work done by a psychologist in a major teaching hospital. The main intervention that he carried out over a 12-month period was coaching individuals in a particular unit of the hospital on the 3:1 Positivity Ratio. Here are the results that he obtained:

•     Sick leave dropped 75% in a year

•     48% increase in retention

•     Engagement moved from 3rd percentile to 87th percentile

•     Staff satisfaction rose from 1% to 85% in one year

•     Patient satisfaction increased 13%

•     Higher job enjoyment

•     Savings of $800,000 a year in this one department

•     The unit he worked with was described at the outset as “the worst of the worst”. A year later they won award for “best of the best”

Since Frederickson’s book Positivity was published in 2009, a lot of other peer-reviewed research has been conducted in an effort to replicate and test their findings. Studies have established that successful married couples have a 5:1 Positivity ratio, and that successful business work groups have a 6:1 Positivity ratio (actually, 5.5-to-1). Both of these studies were based on positive vs. negative statements as opposed to emotions. This just goes to show that it’s the positivity that matters, not the form (thoughts or feelings both work).

My own informal, unscientific studies in a number of law firms shows a dismal ratio of less than 1:1. In one firm I worked with, the ratio was 0.8:1 (For every 8/10ths of a positive emotion shown, there was one negative emotion shown.)

I have written before about the pervasive negativity in most law firms—it’s a helpful mindset for being a good lawyer, but it has serious side effects: it fosters and sustains low Resilience among the lawyers who work in such environments, and it makes it very hard for lawyers to excel in more social roles that they are being asked to play (leader, manager, mentor, etc.)

This leads to an irony: We have good reason to believe that increasing the Positivity Ratio in a law firm would produce hugely welcome and beneficial effects—not only would it help them perform these newer social roles more effectively, but it would likely lead to greater collegiality, collaboration, and accountability, as well as better client service.

But the very reason that such an approach is needed—i.e., the excessive skepticism, negativity and pessimism—may be the very reason that such an approach would never be accepted. That’s why I say that this is an approach that only a bold leader who is willing to take a risk can even think of implementing in a law firm.

But it’s worth doing. If you were to reduce the amount of negative thinking (or feeling), and increase the amount of positive thinking (or feeling) in your firm, so that the typical ratio on an average day exceeded the 3:1 tipping point, you would not only see a firm of happier, healthier people, but their willingness to comply with requests from leaders would significantly increase. That is, increasing the Positivity Ratio past the tipping point changes the mindset of the individuals, and this leads to many types of behavior changes, not the least of which is improved accountability. (Other documented benefits include greater collaboration, more kindness, increased gratitude, less criticism, and greater trust.)

Increasing the Positivity Ratio is not about “saying nice things.” It’s about increasing the quantity of positive emotions that your lawyers experience in a particular time frame (say, during a work week.) Before I tell you why this matters so much, and how to achieve it, let me point out one very important element of the 3:1 Positivity Ratio research—the “1” in “3:1” is quite important. Dr. Frederickson declared in a recent seminar that without paying attention to the “1”, thriving is impossible. In other words, her research provides a validation for what a lot of lawyers tell me—i.e., that it’s important to be “realistic”, to pay attention to threats, worst case scenarios, what could go wrong, etc. (This type of thinking generates negative emotions.) Where she parts with them is that her research also shows how important it is to balance out this negative attention with a much larger attention to what’s good, what works, and what positive developments might be just around the bend. (This type of thinking generates positive emotions.) Bottom line: Until the ratio gets beyond 3:1 (3 positive:1 negative), thriving is unlikely.

There are a number of ways to build Positivity. Techniques include boosting the ratio of positive to negative thoughts that an individual has; increasing the number and duration of positive emotions that an individual experiences in a typical week; reducing the number and duration of negative emotions one experiences; measuring and modifying the ratio of positive to negative statements that two individuals make, on average, in their regular communications with each other; doing the same for regular meetings of partners; and doing the same during individual mentoring, coaching or feedback sessions. Further guidance is available in Dr. Frederickson’s book Positivity.

If you can successfully implement any of these changes, you have the potential not only to increase lawyer accountability, but to catalyze many other sweeping changes for the better.

2. Use “Elevation” Principles: Research from the same field—Positive Psychology—shows that we all have a spectrum along which we behave that ranges from “me at my best” to “me at my worst”. When I’m my “best self”, I may be thoughtful, considerate, cooperative, friendly, diligent and attentive. When I’m my “worst self”, I may be aggressive, self-centered, irritable, uncooperative, aloof, etc. More importantly, the research also shows that when we operate at the better end of our behavioral spectrum—when we are “elevated” in the jargon of the journal articles—it leads to a whole basket of desirable outcomes—these include greater job satisfaction, higher life satisfaction, deeper social connections, greater efficiency, greater profitability, better health metrics, and more “prosocial” behavior. Prosocial behavior is basically “helping” behavior. People who act prosocially tend to be more cooperative, less critical, more willing to work in a team or to collaborate, more likely to voluntarily help a colleague, more likely to be friendlier and more likeable. So if you can elevate the mindset of your partners, they will naturally behave as better firm citizens in many different ways.

How do you “elevate” an individual? There are several ways: (1) role-modeling (e.g., when a leader behaves at his/her best, others tend to do so as well); (2) regularly giving people an experience of “awe”—spending even a little time in nature, even a peaceful view of a lake or a forest from a conference room window might do the trick; (3) seeing other human beings at their best, e.g., showing a video or telling a story about an inspiring event, or holding up an individual who has done a positive act (e.g., recounting a generous pro bono case that a group of your partners handled), or seeing someone do an act of courage, generosity or kindness. For additional ideas, take a look at this article by Jonathan Haidt at New York University or this list of articles or at his TED Talk here.

By the way, if you were able to elevate the mindset of the lawyers in your firm, you would create a nearly insurmountable competitive advantage. These days, with the ubiquity of information, almost any feature that gives one firm a competitive advantage can be copied by at least one or more other firms more readily than ten or twenty years ago. However, the skeptical—and even cynical—nature of most law firms makes it doubtful that even the best leaders can make any headway here. See my earlier post on lawyer negativity here. But for the bold among you, it’s worth a try because it’s unlikely that your competitors will follow suit. Caveat: Practices that “elevate” human beings are easy to describe, but challenging to carry out in a law firm due to the high levels of skepticism among lawyers.

3. Follow the “4DX” Model: Last year the Franklin Covey organization published a very important new book called The Four Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals. It spells out a simple but powerful 4-part strategy for getting people to execute on important goals despite the daily distractions of what they call “the whirlwind”—the pressing to do’s of your normal workday. One of their principles is to only require people to commit to two—that’s right, two—goals, no more. Their research shows that once you get beyond two goals, the likelihood of completing any of the goals drops like a stone. So if the thing you’re trying to get your partners to do is competing with their “whirlwind”, their lack of “accountability” may actually be nothing of the sort. It may simply be the natural consequence of expecting your partners to deliver on too many goals at the same time. The 4DX system has already been field-tested with over 1500 different workgroups, and they have shown surprisingly robust success. The system is conceptually very simple. The challenge is in getting skeptical, time-driven lawyers to follow the four simple principles.

In the jargon of Franklin Covey, the four steps are:

  1. Focus on the Wildly Important (Pick just one or two important goals, and make sure they are really important to the firm. Their importance is, in part, what will get your lawyers to be accountable.)
  2. Act on the Lead Measures (A “Lead” measure is a step which leads to the desired outcome. Their advice, in other words, is that instead of just keeping your eye on the goal, as we are often taught, you also need to keep your eye on the behaviors that will most likely lead to the goal.)
  3. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard (They advise firms to create a very real, concrete scoreboard that people can see and touch; to keep it simple; and to show regular progress on both the goal and the lead measures.)
  4. Create a Cadence of Accountability (This is done by having short—15 to 20 minutes—meetings each week during which you focus only on what you promised to do this week, did you do it, and what are you going to commit to do next week.)

Like I said, the steps are simple. The challenge is getting lawyers to do these four things without the usual slippage. Since the system has been shown to work really powerfully in other service businesses, there’s every reason to expect that it can work in a law firm.

All three of these “big” ideas are based on solid research. They all have a track record in other settings such as large corporations, the military, and nonprofits. And they are all relatively simple to understand and really hard to execute with a skeptical, autonomous, urgent audience like lawyers. If you do decide to jump in and use one of these approaches, please leave a comment in this blog space so our readers can cheer you on and learn from your efforts. Good luck.

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

© 2013 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved