I just finished reading an interesting book called Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces That Shape Behavior by Jonah Berger (Simon & Schuster, 2017). Professor Berger is a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. In this book, he explores two human tendencies that seem to be at odds with each other—the need for differentiation and the need for belonging. It seems to me that there are some useful lessons for law firm leaders here.

We all seek to differentiate ourselves. We want to be unique, individual, distinctive, special. Yet we also all seek to belong. We want to be included, to be part of something larger than ourselves, to fit in, to be accepted.

In both cases, we resist overdoing it. Too much uniqueness and we could become ridiculed, isolated, even ostracized. But too much belonging and we could lose our identity, become a conformist, lose our individuality.

Professor Berger shows us how we mainly seek to be just a little different in some ways but still maintain similarity in others.

This has important implications for anyone in a leadership role. For example, if you’re trying to introduce change, think of it this way—too much change, without also providing some anchor to the past, will usually fail to get traction.

Remember when Coca Cola introduced “New Coke”? It was pitched as a brand new product, a complete departure from the old Coke. We as consumers were expected to embrace it because taste tests showed that it was better tasting. Despite that advantage, the produce rollout was a failure because the majority of Americans don’t want something that’s completely new and different—they want their change to be gradual, and they want at least some continuity with the past.

By contrast, consider how Thomas Edison wisely introduced the electric light—he presented it in a sconce that looked very similar to the gas lamps of the time—similar, but just a wee bit different. And the early digital cameras wisely looked just like our older but familiar film cameras. Both strategies were designed to reassure a change-averse public that the “new” was also in many ways familiar.

This principle is especially pertinent in law firms. As lawyers we are trained to be skeptical and change-averse, so any effort to introduce change has to demonstrate even more continuity with the status quo than it would for members of the general public.

What about when our effort is not to introduce change, but to adjust to change? We’re all experiencing unprecedented changes in how we work, develop business, practice law, stay educated, etc. One sure-fire way to help your people adapt to these “buckle your seatbelts” changes is to draw their attention to what hasn’t changed, or even to consciously reinforce those stable, unchanging aspects in order to provide psychological reassurance to your employees as they cope with all this change that’s beyond their control.

And in a time of COVID, this goes double. The level of change and uncertainty has now been ratcheted up to a new level, a level that’s bound to trigger everyone’s natural tendency to resist change, even if it makes no rational sense to do so.

The “same but different” strategy can also be helpful in fostering greater diversity and inclusion. Scientists tell us that in a time of change, it’s human nature to psychologically “circle the wagons”, i.e., to begin to hang out with “people who are just like me” and to avoid, exclude, or even de-status others who you perceive to be “not like me.” The technical name for this tendency is homophily.

How can you reduce this instinctive reaction? Show people how others whom they may perceive to be “not like me” are actually, in other ways, “just like me.” That is, we’re “different”, but we’re also “the same.” The homophilic reaction usually classifies others as “like me” vs. “not like me” according to the most common categories—skin color/ethnicity, gender, age, socioeconomic status, etc. In a time of stress, threat and uncertainty, we’re more apt to notice such distinctions and to increase our tendency to hang out with “people like me.”

Luckily there’s a simple solution: Direct your people’s attention towards more obscure things that they share in common, and find ways to reduce the attention they pay to the more obvious differences. Neuroscience research shows that when our brain pays attention to something, we naturally assume that the object of our attention must be important. So by inviting people to pay attention to commonalities—even though they may at first be less obvious than the differences—you are, in effect, building a bigger tent within which homophilic wagon-circling takes place.

Now, when I hang out with “people like me”, I might include not only those who look like me but perhaps also those who share a hobby, read similar books, follow the same sport, or who have travelled to similar places as me. We may be different in one way, but similar in other ways. What matters here is how effectively you can shift an individual’s attention from the obvious differences to the less obvious commonalities.

Finally, the “similar but different” strategy can be useful in recruiting, either for graduating law students at OCI’s or for laterals. Candidates will be more likely to want to work at your firm if you can show them how, in some ways, they’ll be unique, distinctive and individual, and how in others they’ll be part of a team, or an organization with a shared mission—differentiated, and yet belonging.

I hope you find the basic thesis of this blog post to be distinctive and different from how you’ve thought about these issues before—and yet, when you think about it, there’s really nothing new in what I’m saying. Good luck.

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

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