Change Management

Accountability 101 – Part three

Dr. Larry Richard

By Dr. Larry Richard

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.

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Accountability 101 – Part one


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