What Makes Lawyers Tick?

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

Accountability 101 – Part three

Posted in Accountability, Change Management

In a previous post (Accountability 101 – Part two) I mentioned that to achieve accountability on the part of partners, you need to:

  1. Use a buy-in approach. Avoid either coercive or “incentivizing” approaches.
  2. Be proactive, not reactive.
  3. Use multiple interventions, not just one.

In this post, I want to address the third point, “Use multiple interventions, not just one”.

Use multiple interventions, not just one: Changing human behavior is not easy—we are creatures of habit, and there is a lot of inertia to overcome before people begin behaving differently. When your goal is to get a partner to start doing a behavior that they are not currently doing, that certainly requires a decent amount of effort to get past the inertia. But it’s even more difficult to get someone to stop doing a behavior, or even more difficult, to get them to change how they do it, i.e., do the same basic behavior, but do it differently. These latter two kinds of change involve an additional step that’s not usually involved in “teaching an old dog new tricks”—namely, overcoming old habits.

For this reason, getting partners to do what you want them to do is almost always easier, more effective, and longer lasting when you use multiple interventions of different varieties and apply them repeatedly and consistently over time until new habits take hold.

In my previous blog post, I introduced 7 interventions. Keep in mind that no one of these alone is generally sufficient to produce compliant behavior; the best approach is to combine several of them in order to create a wave of behavior change. Many of them benefit from repetition—because we’re creatures of habit, it takes a lot of influence to get us to change—another reason that compliance-by-memo is so ineffective.

Here is a baker’s dozen of additional strategies that you can use at the time you request that your partners complete a particular behavior. All of these are based on published studies in the behavioral sciences. Each of these can add to the likelihood of success:

  • Study Successful People: Who’s doing it right already? Research shows that people improve their performance most readily when they follow the lead of those who have already attained success in similar tasks. These individuals do better than those who are given feedback about their mistakes, even if the intention is to teach them how to avoid those same mistakes in the future. This is why role modeling is so powerful.
  • Provide Operational Feedback: Operational feedback is pragmatic and non-judgmental. If you’re hanging a picture, and your spouse says, “Tilt it a little to the left”, that’s operational feedback—it gives you concrete guidance about what’s working and what’s not, and how to improve your performance. By contrast, evaluative feedback contains a judgment, e.g., “That picture looks lousy there!”, and is usually not very helpful in making any course corrections. The research shows that moderate amounts of operational feedback can improve the likelihood of success of any task.
  • Design-in ways to recognize small successes: Teresa Amabile at Harvard has shown that people are most motivated when they achieve regular, ongoing small successes. If you can find ways to break a large task down into smaller units, and establish checkpoints along the way so that partners can be recognized for having completed these smaller elements, you’re more likely to see a successful outcome.
  • Use the ‘buddy’ system: When people commit to completing a task by a date certain and they do so to someone with whom they have an ongoing trusting relationship, the chances of success increase significantly. If you ask partners to pair up with each other and to hold each other accountable, you’re more likely to achieve success than if you leave it to each individual on their own.
  • Use defaults wisely: In most situations, there is a “default” consequence for inaction. In some of these situations, it can be quite appropriate to set the default so that it results in a desired outcome. For example, in countries where organ donation upon death is the default (but one can opt out), organ donations are far higher than in countries where one must opt in and choose organ donation. Using this schema, you can probably think of appropriate ways to set defaults in favor of the desired outcome. Note that this won’t work in every case—sometimes you’ll hit a tripwire if the issue is too controversial—but it’s good to keep in mind for those times when it can be useful.
  • Set up a competition: Lawyers by nature are fairly competitive. If you can set up a friendly competition, often this can increase the likelihood of achieving the outcomes you’re looking for.
  • Use Social Proof: Especially in situations where there is ambiguity as to what the right behavior is, people look around to see what others are doing, and they usually follow what the crowd is doing. Sometimes called the “bandwagon effect”, and also known as “social proof”, this tendency is well known in the legal profession. Lawyers are always asking, “What are other firms doing about this?” You can harness this phenomenon to your advantage by strategically sharing information within the firm once a subgroup clearly begins to pull ahead in complying with a requested behavior. Simply report their success to the rest of the partners. Caution: Don’t make the mistake of using “reverse social proof”—in other words, never say, “Come on, we really need you to complete your plan—only 5% of the partners have done so already.” This is a surefire way to stop people in their tracks!
  • Use ‘Story’ as a Strategy: Human beings are programmed to respond to stories. (See Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, by Lisa Cron.) Finding examples of partners who not only succeeded but who demonstrably conferred some benefit on the firm or practice group by doing so can be a great way to encourage compliance. Take these positive examples and weave a story and let it go viral within the firm. Telling stories (rooted in true accomplishments) is a powerful way to communicate important values, desired behaviors, and cultural norms (“how we do things around here”).
  • Maintain congruity as a leader: Be sure that you have done whatever task you’re asking your partners to do. There’s no quicker way to short-circuit your efforts to get partners to behave in a certain way than to ask them to do something that you yourself haven’t yet done. If you ask them to turn in a plan, make sure that you’ve turned your own plan in early first. People have an innate capacity to detect hypocrisy.
  • Tie requests for action to firm values: Does your firm have a clear, written statement of values? Is it honored in practice or is it just a “lip service” statement? Do the firm leaders make a clear effort to live the firm values? If so, then those values can be referenced when you ask partners to complete a particular action. How does that action further or reinforce a particular firm value? Make the link for them. It adds impact.
  • Encourage the firm’s thought leaders: People are more likely to comply with those they see as authorities or as prominent individuals. Every firm has partners who are either held in high esteem, are seen as role models, are considered the embodiment of the firm’s values, are natural leaders, or in some other way “punch above their weight.” Encourage these thought leaders to complete the requested action, and let it be known that they have complied, and other partners will be more likely to do so as well.
  • Begin with a small step: Small commitments lead to larger commitments. (See Influence by Robert Cialdini.) Suppose you want all partners to turn in a business plan by the end of the month. Instead of asking for that right off the bat, start by asking every partner to simply send you a short email listing one sentence or less stating the most important goal they are aiming for in their plan. This is a much simpler request to comply with than writing a full plan. Once people have sent you this email, though, they are much more likely to follow through with the full plan than if you had just asked for the plan alone at the outset.
  • Use the Contrast Principle: Sometimes leaders initially ask for too much, e.g., “Can you write one marketing article a month?” When that happens, backing off a bit and asking for a noticeably smaller objective often works when the initial request didn’t. Social psychology research shows that when contrasting experiences are offered to an individual, the second experience is perceived as magnified. For example, if you put your right hand into ice water, and then put both hands into room temperature water, it will feel like your right hand is in hotter water than your left hand because of the contrasting experience. Likewise, if you ask a partner to do something that feels burdensome, and then you back off and concede to a less burdensome version of the request, it is more likely to be seen as palatable than if it were presented without the initial offer.

If you combine these with the 7 previous suggestions, you now have 20 ideas which you can combine in almost limitless ways to achieve partners compliance and accountability.

Stay tuned for the final post in this series, in which I’ll discuss 3 strategies for shaping partner behavior that each involve a more sophisticated approach to fostering accountability. It will appear here in about two weeks.

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

© 2013 LawyerBrain LLC  -  All rights reserved

Accountability 101 – Part two

Posted in Accountability, Change Management

This is part two of a series of posts on partner accountability. To recap, in order to achieve accountability, you need to:

  1. Use a buy-in approach. Avoid either coercive or “incentivizing” approaches.
  2. Be proactive, not reactive.
  3. Use multiple interventions, not just one.

In a previous post (http://www.lawyerbrainblog.com/?p=198), I explained the importance of the buy-in approach. In this post, I want to address the second point, “Be proactive, not reactive.” Once I explain this, I’ll offer you some potent interventions that you can put to use immediately.

Be proactive, not reactive.  Over the years I’ve had many conversations with law firm leaders concerning the lack of partner accountability, and I’ve noticed something interesting about these conversations—virtually all of them seem to emerge on the leader’s radar screen after the deadline has been reached or even passed. In other words, when it comes to accountability, leaders often find themselves looking into the rear view mirror and bemoaning the fact that the partners failed to comply with a request. It’s at that point that they ask, “How can I get my partners to be more accountable?”

It’s better to think about accountability at the time that you make the request, rather than after the partners have failed to comply. In other words, be proactive, not reactive. Your ability to be successful in getting partners to be accountable is very much a function of when you start paying attention to their accountability.

If you wait to address the issue of getting partners to comply until after the deadline has passed, the number of productive strategies for fostering the desired behaviors will have diminished considerably. Moreover, the few strategies that do remain will be mostly coercive in nature, which is just what you don’t want. However, if you address accountability when you first make the request of your partners, then there are quite a number of strategies at your disposal that, collectively, can increase the odds of getting the behaviors you seek.

Proactive Interventions.   Let’s look at some of the most effective strategies. All of these work particularly well in fostering compliance with a request if you apply them at the time of the request and not after the fact. (I’ll use the “turn-in-your-business-plan” example to illustrate, but know that you can use these principles with a whole range of other behaviors for which you’re seeking accountability):

  • Perspective-Taking: We often assume that since “commanding” another person to do something sounds authoritative it will produce results. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, “commanding” has limited effectiveness—it works pretty well when you’re in a crisis, an emergency, or a life-or-death situation like on a battlefield. But in a knowledge-based business like law, when you are requesting behaviors that require the use of intelligence, judgment and nuanced decision-making, a “commanding” approach creates resistance rather than compliance.Perspective-taking is a more effective approach. It involves stepping into the world of the person you’re seeking to influence, to find out what motivates them. See if you can find a way to show them how doing what you’re asking them to do helps get them what they are seeking. This turns a command into a win/win event—but you’ll only succeed at this if you temporarily put your own agenda aside, and explore what the other individual’s motives and needs might be, and look for the alignment of both.
  • Envision the Steps: People who articulate a clear goal or purpose are more successful in achieving results than people who have fuzzy goals or who “play it by ear.” Research shows that you can be even more effective by envisioning the specific stepsthat you plan to take in order to reach your clearly articulated goal.For example, political operatives have utilized this finding to increase the likelihood that voters who say they will vote will actually go out and do so. Volunteers now call voters and ask them not only “Do you plan to vote?”, but also things like “What time of day do you think you’ll vote?” and “How do you plan to get to the polls?” and “Which route do you think you’ll take?” These questions actually serve to mentally rehearse the wanted behavior, which makes it all the more likely that it will take place.
  • Put it in writing: Research shows that people who put a commitment in writing are more likely to follow through on it than if they just verbally assent. Ask your partners to write down their commitment to turn in a business plan. If they add their personal signature, it increases the odds of compliance even more.
  • Make It Public: There is also evidence that when we make a commitment publicly, e.g., to others in our practice group, we are more likely to follow through than if we simply agree privately.
  • Use small groups: If all you do is ask your partners to submit their business plans, then their role is rather passive. You’re waiting for them to move from inaction to action. Consider instead convening a practice group meeting, breaking everyone into smaller groups of no more than 4 people, and having each small group begin the planning process. Each person can throw out ideas to and receive feedback from the others in the group. This has several advantages: It automatically invokes the “Make It Public” heuristic described above; it also helps to invoke the “Envision the Steps” heuristic, also described above. There is also separate research suggesting that people who have already started something are much more likely to complete it than people who have not yet begun. If you use the group experience to kick-start the discussion, and then let them finish it on their own, this increases the likelihood of success. By contrast, if you just send a memo and ask all partners to turn in a plan by a particular date, the “getting started” part can be a barrier.
  • Increase the amount of “meaning”: It’s natural for people to want meaning in their work. When we ask our partners to do things, to take specific actions, they are more likely to carry them out to the extent that doing so appears meaningful to them. By analogy, consider two partners giving the same assignment to an associate: the first partner does so without explaining the context—“research whether Section XYZ in the CFR applies to the following fact situation . . .” while the second partner provides some context and background—“Here is what our client is seeking . . . and here is why this issue matters to the client . . .” and then gives the same assignment. Most associates will be far more motivated by the second approach. Research has shown that there are a number of ways to foster greater meaning in work assignments, and by doing so, you increase the likelihood of psychological buy-in and hence of ultimate performance. See, e.g., Positive Leadership by Kim Cameron, where the author discusses four ways of fostering greater meaning.
  • Remove Obstacles: Sometimes the biggest barrier to getting things done is not an individual’s intention or skills or motivation, but rather real-world obstacles in their environment. If the firm’s document management system is antiquated and it’s tedious for a partner to create a document; or if there’s a procedure to follow that contains redundant steps; or if there’s not enough of a needed resource and it creates a bottleneck—all of these and others like them can prevent even the most well-intentioned individuals from fulfilling their commitments. As a leader, you have a responsibility to remove obstacles, to make it as easy as possible for your partners to do what you’ve asked them to do. It may be time to do an efficiency audit and find out how work flows in your office. There’s an entire field—Process Improvement—that’s devoted to the science and engineering principles around the efficient completion of work tasks.

One important caveat:  Resign yourself to the fact that not everyone will be influenceable. Some individuals, for example, are dispositional procrastinators—it’s their nature not to turn things in on time. (I’m using the example here of turning in a business plan on time, but these ideas apply equally forcefully to almost any other action that you ask your partners to do, whether it has a calendar deadline or not.) You have to make a decision as to which is more important—getting compliance or saving money and other resources. For these individuals, the only way you may succeed in getting their compliance is to help them out by assigning someone to work with them, for example, or investing in a new technology. This can incur significant expenses. If a partner is important enough to a firm, but they don’t comply with actions that partners are expected to comply with, then you may have to invest in paying for a staffer to help them out, or spending money on a technology solution, or using some other strategy to get their compliance despite their own dispositional shortcomings. Occasionally, firms decide that it’s not worth the effort—either you comply or you’re out of here. Far more often, firms either invest in the partner’s success or they overlook the partner’s non-compliance. My advice: Try at all costs not to overlook the partner’s non-compliance. It will very quickly open the door to non-compliance by others without those same dispositional shortcomings.

Next: I’ll be posting at least two more blog posts on this subject. In the next post, I’ll introduce another half-dozen useful interventions, and I’ll discuss why using multiple interventions is vital. And in the final “Accountability 101” post, I’ll introduce 3 “super” strategies that will not only help you achieve accountability, but at the same time will give you a decided competitive advantage. Stay tuned.

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

© 2013 LawyerBrain LLC  -  All rights reserved

Accountability 101 – Part one

Posted in Accountability, Change Management

How do you “hold partners accountable?” It’s the beginning of the year, and many law firm leaders are still struggling to get their partners to complete some of the non-billable tasks that are vital to the firm’s success.

In the past several weeks, I’ve spoken to a number of law firm leaders who have raised the accountability issue. One managing partner expressed concern that his partners weren’t billing enough hours, and he wanted to hold them accountable. Another expected every partner to turn in a business plan by December 31st, but only 40% had done so. A third managing partner told me that his partners were not collaborating in business development teams despite their having just finished an expensive program in how to do so. In a fourth firm, the complaint was that the practice group leaders are not devoting enough time to their leadership role.

In each of these cases, the leaders are hoping for more “accountability” in the sense of “getting lawyers to do what I asked them to do”. Getting lawyers to behave accountably has been a challenge in nearly every law firm. Research into lawyers’ personalities that I have conducted over the years shows that lawyers are far more Skeptical and Autonomous than the average person. These two traits, in combination, produce a personality style that is not very compliant with authority. Compounding these tendencies is the fact that the main focal point of most lawyers is their clients, so if there’s any accountability to be had, it’s to those clients. The things that they’re being asked to do by their leaders usually fall into the category of non-billable time, and except in the rarest of firms, such actions are viewed as less important than billable client time, despite David Maister’s now famous admonition that “what you do with your non-billable time is your investment in your future.”

Despite these challenges, there is something that you can do to increase the likelihood that partners will comply with requests that you make. The last two decades of research in the behavioral sciences has simply exploded with studies that give us greater insight than ever about what makes people behave in ways that leaders want them to. What can behavioral science research tell us about how to get lawyers—or people in general—to do what they’re supposed to do?

Beginning with this post, and continuing in several that I will post subsequently, I’m going to cover some of the psychological principles of how to get partners to behave accountably. Some of these principles seem like common sense, but as Stephen Covey so incisively reminded us, common sense is not necessarily common practice.

To achieve accountability on the part of partners, you need to:

  1. Avoid didactic, coercive or “incentivizing” approaches. Instead, use a true buy-in approach.
  2. Be proactive, not reactive.
  3. Use multiple interventions, not just one.

Today’s post addresses this first point. Future posts will address the others.

Avoid didactic, coercive or “incentivizing” approaches. Instead, use a true buy-in approach: When trying to get partners to behave in the right way, many law firm leaders by default opt for one of three approaches:

a) The didactic approach: You send a memo to your partners and expect that the information you provide will be sufficiently compelling on its own to generate a compliant response (This feels, at least initially, like you’re being quite efficient); or,

b) The coercive approach: You ask your partners to do a particular thing (e.g., turn in that business plan), “or else”—in other words, something bad will happen to you if you don’t comply (“the stick”), or,

c) The incentivizing approach: You offer a reward to your partners to “incentivize” them to do the requested behavior (“the carrot”).

Each of these is a big mistake. They may produce results, but they all end up either being ineffective in the end or being effective but at a much greater cost than you anticipated.

The didactic approach is an easy trap to fall into. On the surface, sending a memo makes sense. In the practice of law, the right information expressed in the right way is often the key to success. But in the realm of human behavior, the ground rules are different. People are not moved to action by compelling arguments alone. An emotional response must be evoked, and a memo alone can’t usually do that.

The coercive approach is also a fairly natural default for people trained to think in an adversarial mindset. This approach involves a demand, such as “Do this, or else . . . ”  Unfortunately, though, if you demand compliance, it often backfires with lawyers. We’re all trained to push back, to find flaws in any request, to challenge the legitimacy of a demand. A buy-in approach is likely to be far more successful in getting lawyers to comply than a coercive approach.

The “incentivizing” approach involves offering some sort of reward as a contingency for doing the required behavior—“If you do X, then you’ll get Y.” These types of rewards are known as “extrinsic rewards” because they come from outside the individual. I’ll use the phrases “incentivizing”, “incentives”, and “extrinsic rewards” interchangeably here. Why do I urge you to avoid “incentivizing” the desired behaviors? It seems like a perfectly reasonable approach. Haven’t we always heard that “What gets rewarded gets done”??? The problem is that twenty years of research on the use of such “if-then” extrinsic rewards shows that they are quite ineffective, especially when they are used to motivate behavior that requires judgment, discrimination or the use of intelligence.

Daniel Pink, in his recent book Drive, details some of the social science research on incentives and shows why, despite their surface appeal, they can be a disaster as a means of getting compliance with specific behaviors, especially if what’s desired is not just a behavior but the behavior done with an accompanying beneficial attitude (like being a responsible firm citizen.) They work very well for simple rote tasks, but can be very unpredictable when used to foster more complex behaviors.

Incentivizing strategies are imprecise (you may not get the behavior you thought you would), they often have significant unwanted side consequences, they displace naturally occurring intrinsic motivations, they diminish creativity, they foster self-aggrandizing behavior, and they encourage other bad behavior like cutting important corners.

So what does work? Seeking true buy-in as part of your campaign to get people to do the requested action. People in general—and lawyers are no exception—are far more likely to comply with a request when they have had some opportunity to be involved in shaping their destiny. To put it succinctly, “participation leads to commitment”.

Much has been written about “buy-in”. Unfortunately, too many law firm leaders have oversimplified this important idea and see it merely as the process of telling a partner what you want them to do and waiting for them to signal that they’re on board. Just because a partner says “I’ll do it” does not necessarily mean that you have true buy-in—even if they say it in all sincerity. True buy-in involves a conversation in which they learn about and really understand what they are committing to, how it will affect them, and what behaviors are expected of them, and after considering all this they still say “yes.” It also involves giving the partner an opportunity for choice, input or control. One great way to do this is to discuss with the partner where this particular commitment fits with all the other commitments that the partner has, and ask him/her to place this commitment in the proper spot in their “priority pipeline.”

Buy-in approaches work mainly because they trigger intrinsic rewards—internal feeling states that make a person do something for their own reasons (e.g., pride, wanting to make a difference, recognition, power, security, and above all, the feeling that I owe you a responsibility—literally, “You can count on me.”) Their effect is not as instantaneous as extrinsic (incentivized) approaches, but they last longer and are more satisfying. They don’t result in “buyer’s remorse”.

“Accountability” results first and foremost from the relationship that a leader has with his/her constituents. Constituents who feel heard, respected, and valued by their leader are more likely to comply with that leader’s request. Leadership demands relationship-building if for no other reason than it fosters feelings of responsibility, i.e., a constituent literally feels “accountable” to his/her leader. Buy-in is an intrinsically motivated, emotion-based response that you want to cultivate. It’s the meta-principle behind most of the interventions I’ll discuss later in this and subsequent posts. My research on lawyers’ personalities shows that lawyers in general are not well suited to this kind of relationship building.

Nevertheless, the more you spend time listening to your partners, giving them an opportunity for input, giving them a voice in the outcome, even if it’s in a small way, the more likely it is that the individual will carry out your request. Instead of just insisting that the business plan be submitted, you could start, for example, by giving the partners some latitude in picking the due date, or you could provide them a choice of form to use and let them pick one. Even small opportunities to exercise some choice, input or control can have big effects on later compliance behavior.

What I’m proposing is more than just passive “listening”, but rather a more active process that begins with listening, and then beyond that invites the partners to make choices, decisions, shape the outcome in at least some small way.

Next time: Why a “proactive” approach is so important, plus over a dozen specific interventions that really work.

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

© 2013 LawyerBrain LLC  -  All rights reserved

The Lawyer Personality: Why Lawyers Are Skeptical

Posted in Assessment, Personality

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.

© 2013 LawyerBrain LLC  -  All rights reserved

Supercharging Multi-Rater Feedback

Posted in Assessment, Leadership, Self-Management

This is the time of year when a lot of law firms administer multi-rater feedback surveys—these can include “360-degree feedback” or simply “360’s”, as well as peer reviews and upward evaluation surveys. What they all have in common is that an individual receives feedback from multiple raters.

Multi-rater surveys can accomplish several goals at the same time:

  • They can provide important feedback to the individual “ratees” (i.e, the feedback recipients).
  • They can provide the raters an opportunity to be heard
  • The aggregated results can provide actionable feedback to firm management about important behavioral issues that may need attention

Some law firms take a minimalist approach to these surveys—they run the survey, gather feedback from raters, and then simply send the feedback report to the ratees (usually partners) and leave it to those partners to interpret their own reports.

While this approach is quick and efficient, it can significantly sacrifice effectiveness and result in little to no behavior change.

To achieve the maximum payoff for your investment—for example, if you want the feedback to be maximally effective, or you want to foster behavior change, or you want the raters to feel like they’ve definitely had their voices heard—then consider taking the following two steps in addition to merely administering the survey:

(1) Gain buy-in at the time that you build the survey, and

(2) Provide meaningful coaching and strengths-based feedback at the back end.

Buy-in: Surveys have a powerful impact on people—on both those who give feedback and those who receive it. For the givers, they can raise significant expectations about potential changes in the ratee’s behavior—and they can also arouse concerns about retaliation, confidentiality, and related fears. (Not all feedback is “bad”, but lawyers tend to pay more attention to the negative.) For the feedback recipients, it can create a potent discrepancy—between “how I thought I was behaving” and “how others see me behaving”, for example, or between “how I see myself” and “how others see me”.

However, the degree of impact will be minimal if the survey participants had little or no involvement in the creation of the survey. When firm management simply announces that a survey is going to take place, and sets it in motion, it’s seen as something that “they” are doing.

Consider how much more powerful it can be to involve the potential raters and the potential ratees in the actual design of the survey from the outset. This small additional step can yield an enormous advantage—participation leads to commitment.

In other words, when the raters and ratees have had a hand in discussing the survey, thinking about its purposes, contributing ideas about what should be measured, and weighing in on some of the design choices, then when the survey actually takes place, these participants will be much more inclined to accept its legitimacy and to take the entire exercise more seriously.

Strengths-Based Coaching:  When a feedback report is provided to an individual without any coaching, the individual is left to make sense of the feedback on his/her own. Inevitably, human nature takes over, and most people will skim the positive feedback quickly and then linger on and resist the negative feedback. Lawyers do this more readily than most people.

Lawyers are trained to hunt for flaws, problems, and weaknesses. In my experience, when a ratee receives a feedback report at the end of the survey process, s/he almost always focuses on the “bad news”—for example, the first place that most lawyers turn to is the narrative comments that contain any criticism.

This is quickly followed by coming up with reasons why any critical comments are invalid and must be dismissed or ignored. This defeats the purpose of the exercise.

A good coach can help the feedback recipient make sense of the feedback in a way that is open-minded and constructive. The coach can help the recipient use the feedback to improve performance, attain desired goals, or adjust behavior.

The most effective coaching emphasizes the feedback recipient’s strengths. There is a growing body of scientific research showing that employees who focus more of their attention on their strengths, and how to leverage them, realize greater increases in performance and report higher levels of satisfaction than those who focus primarily on their weaknesses.

Focusing on strengths does not mean that weaknesses are to be ignored. Rather, it’s a question of emphasis. Research shows that it is more effective to spend about 75% of your time focusing on how to improve strengths, and 25% on how to manage those weaknesses that are so dire that they actually are interfering with your performance. (Lesser weaknesses can be safely ignored—when someone demonstrates a superior strength, others tend to overlook moderate weaknesses altogether.)

Bottom line: The most effective multi-rater feedback systems involve potential raters and ratees from the outset and seek their input in the design of the system. And the most effective way to deliver feedback is by using a coach who employs a strengths-based approach.

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

© 2012 LawyerBrain LLC  -  All rights reserved

Losing Weight and Keeping It Off

Posted in Self-Management

Although I usually write about leadership, change and resilience, today I want to address weight loss. I know it seems unrelated to the preceding topics, but there’s actually a connection, which we’ll get to in a minute. My main reason for writing this post is to respond to all of my clients and colleagues who have asked me how I lost weight and kept it off. Here are the details you’re looking for:

For most of my adult life I’ve been active, and have followed a pretty healthy diet. But over time, bad habits gradually took over and I gained over 90 pounds over my normal weight. Lots of miles on the road, big meals at various events, long schedules with little time for exercise–it all added up over time and I just wasn’t paying attention. By the time I got determined to do something about it, losing weight seemed like an impossible task. I tried various things, but could never really figure out how to make any headway. This was very frustrating and unpleasant, but it just felt like it was beyond my control.

It’s not my nature to give in. I have a very tenacious side to me, and I was determined to find a way to get back to my trim self. In 2008, two events influenced me. First, my parents were both starting to decline in health, and their fragile mortality served to remind me more vividly of my own. More significantly, my sister, who lives on the opposite side of the country, and whom I hadn’t seen in nearly a year, came East for the holidays and it was obvious that she had lost a lot of weight. That was a wake-up call to me–the combination of “possibility”–if it’s possible for her, then it’s possible for me–coupled with musings about mortality plus a little healthy sibling rivalry, led me to re-focus my attention on my own health. But focus alone is not enough. I needed a plan.

By happenstance, I was browsing in a bookstore the weekend after my sister’s visit when I stumbled upon a book by Judith Beck which outlined a system for weight loss and weight management based not on a “diet” in the traditional sense but rather on a well established psychological model called “Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy” or CBT whose main premise is that you can regulate the behaviors that influence your weight by regulating your thinking patterns. Dr. Beck is a Ph.D. psychologist (http://www.beckdietsolution.com) and one of the leading experts in CBT. Her father, Aaron Beck, invented the technique over 40 years ago to treat depression. One of his insights, and a key principle underlying the method for both treating both depression and weight is that emotions drive behavior, but thinking drives emotions. In other words, when you change how you think, it changes how you feel. Thinking and feeling are not “opposites”, as we often are told, but rather they are complementary functions that work together in the brain.

What does this have to do with weight loss? There are many elements to Dr. Judith Beck’s system, but for me the key element has been the importance of tuning into what she calls “sabotaging thoughts” that precede the unhelpful choices that I make. For example, if I am at a client dinner and the server places an appealing dessert in front of me, I used to eat it without even giving it a second thought. Dr. Beck will tell you that before the fork hits the chocolate cake, your brain first serves up some type of internal statement–some “self-talk”–that basically justifies or even goads you into tucking into the tasty treat. Here are some of the key steps that I learned and put into action:

  • First, set really clear goals about losing weight or staying trim and to connect them to larger, more personal values and desires about the kind of life that is important to me, and to read my goals every single morning, rain or shine.
  • Next, tune into that internal voice and become aware of and stay mindful about what the voice is saying. We all have such a voice, but many of us don’t hear it or we hear it and don’t pay attention to it. Anyone can learn to tune into that voice and become mindful of what statements it’s making in your head right before you commit an unhelpful behavior. So “awareness” is the first step–easy to say, but for some, not so easy to do.
  • Next, create an “antidote” statement for each such sabotaging statement. Every time I hear my brain saying, “Oh great–I love chocolate cake”, or “I know I shouldn’t have this, but I’ve worked really hard today and I deserve it”, I have a ready answer that I deliver to my own brain. In other words, you fight fire with fire–talk back to your brain. As lawyers, this part should come easy–it’s what we’re trained to do. You basically have to fight back against your “inner opposing counsel.” (Thanks Paula Davis-Laack for the great metaphor.)

There are many other steps involved, but the preceding three are the main ones that helped me start and, more importantly, stick with, my plan. Since 2008, I’ve lost 98 pounds and kept 93 of them off. In the process, In addition, I’ve created new habits around eating and exercise because habits are much more successful in weight management than willpower can ever be.

I hope this brief story, and the Beck website (and her latest book, The Complete Beck Diet For Life ( http://www.amazon.com/Complete-Beck-Diet-Life-Five-Stage/dp/084873274X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1356824871&sr=1-1&keywords=complete+beck+diet+for+life ) will inspire those of you looking to manage your own health, and will further provide the details about how I did it. Bear in mind that weight loss is a very individual process, and it seems to work differently for every person. This method succeeded for me; it may not succeed for you. But for those who are unaware of the method, I hope that by providing this information, you at least can give it a try. Please note also that when I began my efforts, I both consulted with my physician, and I engaged a nurse to call me once a week so I could tell her my weight, blood pressure, and other vital signs as I progressed The weekly progress call was also a motivator and a reinforcer. I recommend you do the same if you go down this path.

So how does this all connect with leadership, change and resilience? In at least two ways–the cognitive model I’ve been referring to can be useful both as a tool for being more effective in leading and inluencing others, and as a tool for leaders to manage themselves.

Leading others: The law firm leaders I work with almost always want to influence others in some way. There are many ways to help them do that, and almost all of them can become even more powerful by understanding the principle noted above–that “emotions drive behavior, but thinking drives emotions”. By doing so, a leader is better equipped to pay attention to the most important levers of change, and to understand how and why those levers work. It’s a very powerful principle.

Self-Management: In addition, leaders need to both take care of themselves and be role models for others. Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, in their excellent book The Power of Full Engagement, make the case that people in general, and leaders in particular, need to be fully “engaged” physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. The approach to weight management that I have described here actually combines all four types of engagement. I think that you’ll only really understand what I’m trying to say if you use this CBT approach yourself to master one of your own personal goals–it works not just for losing weight and alleviating depression, but for a range of other self-management tasks. Give it a try.

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

© 2012 LawyerBrain LLC  -  All rights reserved