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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

Why Skeptics Make Good Lawyers and Lousy Leaders

Posted in Leadership

I recently finished conducting a 6-month-long “Action Learning” leadership program with a mid-size law firm. The idea is to train lawyers to be leaders by actually placing them into real live leadership situations, and teaching through experience, instead of using a “death by Power Point” approach.

At the end of our capstone meeting, one of the participants asked me about skepticism and leadership. If you’ve followed my writing, you’ve heard me describe the personality data that I’ve gathered on thousands of lawyers. One of the most robust findings over the years is that lawyers are much more skeptical than the general public. This is the result of several factors that all move in the same direction:

Being a lawyer requires one to constantly search for problems, to wonder what could go wrong, to find the flaws and defects in an assertion. As a result, people with a personality that leans in this direction are more prone to entering the profession, and people with less of this tendency drop out of law school and out of practice at a disproportionately higher rate than their more skeptical counterparts. This concentrates the skeptics in two ways–more are attracted in the first place, and fewer drop out over time.

Skepticism itself is one of those personality traits that is more influenced by one’s environment than is typical. Most personality traits are more genetically predisposed, more nature than nurture, but skepticism is an exception. It is very much influenced by one’s milieu. And the milieu in most law firms, the mindset that is the norm, is one of skepticism. Over the years, I’ve asked people who work with lawyers, are married to lawyers, or who know lawyers, “What adjectives would you use to describe the lawyers you know?” I’ve gotten many responses, but the five most frequent are these: cynical, skeptical, critical, negative and pessimistic. (I also hear arrogant, analytical, egotistical, smart, and several others quite often.)

The point is that the profession both attracts and reinforces people with a negative mindset because this type of critical thinking is essential for a lawyer who wants to do a good job at representing clients.

In recent years, however, lawyers have increasingly been called upon to play many other roles besides “lawyer”. These include leader, manager, supervisor, mentor, committee chair, rainmaker and teammate. These newer roles all require less skepticism and more trust, the opposite of skepticism.

This brings us back to the question that this new law firm leader asked me–Can a skeptical lawyer be a good leader?

The essence of leadership is setting a clear goal and then mobilizing and inspiring others to voluntarily take action to achieve that goal. According to research by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner (The Leadership Challenge; Credibility), trust and credibility are the sine qua non of effective leadership. Leading others is an intensely personal process. People follow a leader because they trust their leader to do the right thing. When a leader is skeptical–and I mean skeptical in his/her leadership role–it leads to a big problem.

Think about really skeptical people that you know. How do you react to them? Do you instantly trust them? Or do you find yourself being skeptical right back at them? Most people instinctively find themselves pulling back and becoming skeptical in response to a skeptic. When a leader is skeptical of us, we become less trusting and more skeptical of that leader. And this is precisely the opposite reaction from what any leader should want. In short, the most effective leaders are trusting, approachable, accepting.

When a lawyer takes on a leadership role, the challenge is one of adaptability–how can you maintain your useful skeptical outlook while wearing your lawyer hat, and yet relax your vigilance and assume a more trusting persona while wearing your leadership hat? I can tell you from experience that it is possible for lawyers in leadership roles to learn this kind of adaptability, what I call “personality agility”, but it’s not easy, and not everyone can do it successfully. It requires first and foremost the desire to become more effective as a leader, plus a willingness to both be self-aware and to receive and reflect on feedback. Next, it’s important to see one or more actual examples of people who have successfully figured out how to achieve this kind of role adaptability, so that the learner can role model what s/he is seeing. Finally, it requires lots of actual and mental rehearsal of the new behaviors, and sufficient reinforcements to cement them in place.

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

© 2012 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

Stress and the Lawyer Brain

Posted in Resilience

I’ve posted before about lawyer negativity and low Resilience. Today I want to address a related topic–How stress affects people in general and lawyers in particular. When we experience a stressful situation, we each react differently. Some people cope really well with stress, take it in stride, aren’t knocked over by it, and recover quickly when they are affected by it. Others are more vulnerable to the effects of stress–we cave in more readily, suffer more, and have a harder time getting back to equilibrium. Earlier this year, a prominent neuropsychologist, Richard Davidson, published a book called The Emotional Life of Your Brain, in which he presents findings from his 30 years of research. He makes the case that every person has a certain “Emotional Style” that is the collective result of how that individual is wired in each of 6 types of brain circuitry. Each circuit is like a dimmer switch, with a high and a low end, and on each circuit, we have a “set point” or a comfort zone. Each of these circuits can be reliably measured in a scientific way.

One of those circuits Davidson specifically calls “Resilience”, which refers to how quickly one recovers from an assault to the system such as being stressed out by an external event. Some people naturally recover quickly from such stresses; others are naturally slow to recover. We all start out in life with a set point, a comfort zone, a home base. The most important point he makes is that recent research suggests that we can change our set point by how we think and by how we pay attention. Davidson has done extensive research, for example, on the impact that mindfulness meditation has on brain circuitry, and he has shown that continued practice produces profound changes in these circuits, and as a result, changes in how practitioners respond to stress.

One of the other circuits that Davidson discusses is called “Outlook”, and it has to do with how positively or negatively one views the world–and how long they can sustain a positive affect. At one end is the person with a sunny disposition, a positive view of life, a “glass half full” mindset. They not only feel positive, but they’re able to sustain that positive feeling for longer periods of time. At the opposite pole is the pessimistic, negative, cynical person. Davidson has shown that there are brain circuits that remain electrically active longer in the positive person, but turn off more quickly in the negative person.

We don’t have data about how lawyers score on Davidson’s 6 brain dimensions. Measuring these circuits requires sophisticated and expensive laboratory equipment. But we do have lots of personality data that convincingly show that lawyers are very low on resilience. We also have evidence from research conducted at the University of Pennsylvania that a negative outlook can actually foster lower resilience. And–good news–the converse is also true, i.e., when people are trained to think more positively, their resilience can be fortified.

All of this research is incipient. Much more needs to be done. But there is more evidence than ever before that the following propositions seem true:

a) People vary in the degree to which they have a positive or negative outlook.

b) People vary in the degree to which they bounce back from setbacks (i.e., resilience).

c) A negative outlook may, in fact, foster lower resilience.

d) By training people to modify their cognitions, they can be taught to change to a more positive outlook set point, and they can be taught to increase their resilience set point.

e) These kinds of changes can have enormous beneficial consequences in their personal and work lives.

For more on this topic, see this blog post by Daniel Goleman, the psychologist who gained fame from writing the bestselling book on Emotional Intelligence:

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

© 2012 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

Using Measures of “Critical Thinking” to Select Lawyers: Not such a good idea

Posted in Selection

I belong to a listserv on Positive Psychology, the new discipline that studies the principles that help ordinary people to thrive (instead of focusing on how to “fix” people who have problems.) Someone on the listserv posed the following question to me (I’m paraphrasing here): Can the Watson Glaser (a test that measures “critical thinking”) be useful in screening lawyers during selection. Here is my response to him:

The Watson Glaser is a very useful tool, but it won’t be that helpful in recruiting lawyers because of a statistical barrier, i.e., restriction of range. By the time someone becomes a lawyer, they have already been screened several times for IQ, analytical and reasoning ability, etc. So the pool of job candidates almost all have capabilities on the higher end of this constellation of abilities. The Watson Glaser, or any test of its type for that matter, is most effective when measuring individuals drawn from a population with lots of variability, i.e., dispersion of scores across the whole bell curve. Such a test will do a very good job discriminating between someone who could not handle the analytical load imposed by legal training and someone who can. But it will do a much less effective job in making fine distinctions between two lawyers.

Moreover, in my experience, the kinds of critical thinking skills measured by the Watson Glaser are entry-level skills, i.e., the “ante to get into the game”. The kinds of skills that differentiate top performing lawyers from average performing lawyers are the same kinds of differentiators that you find in most other industries–emotional intelligence skills, the ability to synthesize ideas, adaptability, open-mindedness, sociability, and cognitive empathy.

My research shows that lawyers as a group don’t naturally come by many of these traits. Lawyers are skeptical and exhibit a disproportionately high degree of negative thinking, which is fine in their lawyer role but an impediment in the other roles that they are called upon to play these days (mentor, supervisor, manager, leader, rainmaker, etc.) They are very low in Sociability, low in Interpersonal Sensitivity, low in Resilience, high in Urgency, and very autonomous. These traits help them be effective as lawyers. But once again, many of these traits interfere with their effectiveness in the other newer roles that they need to play. In the law firm of the future, law firms will need to look for individuals who have the ability to “think like lawyers” when appropriate, and to then adapt and “think like managers” (or like any of the other roles I’ve mentioned.) The most important two traits in developing this capacity, in my opinion, are adaptability and empathy. Both of these are capable of being assessed by some of the better personality instruments available today such as the Caliper Profile, the Hogan, etc.

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

© 2012 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

Resilience and Lawyer Negativity

Posted in Change Management, Resilience

Friends and clients who have followed my work over the years have heard me speak often about the personality research I have done with lawyers. Perhaps no other finding is as intriguing as the fact that lawyers consistently score low on a trait called Resilience. What is Resilience? Basically, it’s the degree to which a person bounces back quickly from criticism, rejection or setbacks. High Resilience people tend to take these negative events in stride. They aren’t as easily thrown off course by them as Low Resilience people are, and when they are impacted, they recover more quickly.

On a percentile scale which ranges from zero to 100%, the average for this trait among the public is the 50th percentile; among lawyers, the average is the 30th percentile. Even more telling is the distribution–90% of the lawyers we test score below the 50th percentile! This is as astonishing as it is consistent.

People often ask me Why are lawyers so low in Resilience? For years, I had no good answer to give them. Over the past few years, I’ve been immersed in a new field of psychology called Positive Psychology, which focuses on the scientific study of what makes it possible for people to thrive–in other words, instead of focusing on “fixing” people who are “broken”, Positive Psychology focuses on what’s working well, and how can we have even more of it. One of the things to emerge out of the Positive Psychology research is a set of techniques that can actually teach people how to become more resilient. As I looked into these very effective techniques, the lightbulb went on.

How do you build Resilience in someone who is low to begin with? (My own Resilience score is 19%.) The answer is you teach the person to change their “self-talk” from negative to positive. That’s an oversimplification–there are a lot of specific strategies involved in successfully doing this, which I’ll cover in a later post–but the basic point is that a positive mindset can fortify against a low-Resilience response. My lightbulb is that the converse is also true–a negative mindset can cause low Resilience in the first place.

By both our nature and our training, lawyers focus on what can go wrong, on what’s broken, on what possible problems exist. In talking to hundreds of people over the years who work with lawyers, the five most common adjectives that they use to describe lawyers are:

  • cynical
  • skeptical
  • critical
  • pessimistic
  • negative

For most lawyers, negative thinking is quite necessary in order to do a good job in representing a client. That’s the problem–the people who are attracted into the legal profession think more negatively than the general public to begin with. Studies show that those with lower levels of negativity drop out of both law school and out of the profession, thus concentrating the more highly negative thinkers. That negativity gets further reinforced when you work every day in a negative climate where negative thinking is rewarded.

All this negativity takes a toll. It’s no accident that as a group, lawyers have above-average levels of divorce, depression, suicide, and substance abuse . . . and low Resilience.

Today there is increasing pressure on lawyers to improve their low Resilience. Lawyers today are called upon to play many other roles besides merely practicing law–They are asked to be leaders, managers, supervisors, mentors, coaches, committee chairs, rainmakers–all of these roles require greater levels of social skill for their success than the practice of law does. And all of them–particularly the leadership role–require higher levels of Resilience for optimum effectiveness.

The good news: As noted above, there are established techniques that actually work quite well to build psychological Resilience even if you’re starting with a very low level. I know–I’ve done it myself, and I’ve taught clients to do it. The U.S. Army is currently engaged in a two-year program to train all 40,000 drill sergeants in how to teach other soldiers to increase their Resilience. The goal: a psychologically fit fighting force.

If Resilience skills  can be taught to soldiers who are in harm’s way, then they can be taught to lawyers. Stay tuned to this space for more details about some of the techniques and other related resources.

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

© 2012 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved