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.
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