What Makes Lawyers Tick?®

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.

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