What Makes Lawyers Tick?

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.

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