Law firm leaders are constantly trying to get their lawyers to do stuff:
- “Turn in your timesheets!”
- “Mentor younger lawyers.”
- “Show up at partners meetings.”
- “Come back to the office.”
Or they’re busy trying to get lawyers to not do stuff:
- “Stop hoarding work.”
- “Don’t use social media to discuss sensitive matters.”
- “Don’t micromanage associates”
Yet many leaders are frustrated at how hard it is to actually get lawyers to comply. We all know how hard it is to “herd cats”. Why is it so hard? Because many lawyer-leaders rely on three ineffective strategies by default:
Why are these strategies ineffective with lawyers? Because they activate unique personality traits that make lawyers resist rather than comply.
Persuasion Triggers Pushback
First, and most common, is an effort at persuasion. When you try to persuade a lawyer to change behavior it immediately triggers our law school training to think like an advocate. Lawyers have an innate radar that instantly detects when someone is trying to persuade them. (Our high Skepticism leads us to question any advice, and our high Abstract Reasoning makes us prone to arguing.) While the leader may be hoping for a response such as “That’s a really helpful suggestion — I’ll give it a try”, what they typically get instead is something like “Well here’s why you’re wrong.” Anytime you try to persuade me, I will instantly push back and argue my own point of view. Moreover, after such a persuasion attempt, I will end up even more committed to my position! So the leader has actually worsened the situation.
Persuasion Triggers Defensiveness
As if the advocacy mindset isn’t enough to be dispositive, there’s a second reason that persuasion efforts backfire when used on lawyers. My research over the past 30 years has shown that lawyers consistently score low on a personality trait called “Resilience.” My data show that 90% of lawyers score in the bottom half of the Resilience scale! That means you can almost always assume that the individual you’re trying to persuade is low in Resilience.
Here’s the problem: When you ask a low-Resilience person to change their behavior, even if it’s aimed at helping them improve, what they hear is “You’re deficient.” For example, if I say to someone “Here’s a suggestion that will improve your legal writing . . .”, they hear “You’re deficient as a writer.” This immediately triggers the defensive, wounded, low-Resilience reaction, and the individual will then resist accepting your suggestion.
For either of these reasons, attempts to persuade rarely succeed with lawyers.
“Incentivizing” is Problematic
The second strategy that most leaders employ is “incentivizing”. Leaders often ask me, “How can I incentivize my lawyers?” If you’re using the verb “incentivize”, you’re already on the wrong track. “Incentivizing” presupposes that some sort of incentive is the way to change behavior, and the only question is which particular incentive should I use? But this is misguided.
The problem here is that incentives (and let’s include threats as well) fall into the “carrots or sticks” approach, which scientific research has shown is quite problematic. Both carrots and sticks are forms of “extrinsic” motivators, that is, they are experienced by people as “pressure” from outside themselves. People in general don’t like to be pressured, but lawyers, who score much higher on the need for Autonomy, are even more sensitive to being pressured. Even something as anodyne as a promised bonus can create great ambivalence. On the one hand, I may appreciate the money; but on the other, I may resent the increased pressure to perform. This can affect performance in undesirable ways.
Coercion Produces Even More Pressure
The third failed strategy is coercion. This is less commonly used by leaders, but every now and then I hear from a leader who learned the hard way how badly this strategy can backfire with lawyers. Any leader who has mandated “turn in your timesheets or else . . .” has learned the lesson that coercion either doesn’t work, or it works but brings with it some very unpleasant side effects. High Autonomy rears its head again.
What Does Work?
So what does work? The best way to change the behavior of lawyers is by using principles of “social influence” . Over the past 30 years, social psychologists have identified dozens of ways that humans can be influenced without arousing a defensive reaction. (The typical defensive reaction is simply called “reactance” by psychologists.1) Here are just a few examples of evidence-based principles of influence:
Role-Modeling: When leaders “walk their talk”, i.e., when they behave in ways that are consistent with how they’re asking others to behave, those others will be more inclined to mimic their leaders’ behaviors. The converse is also true–if I ask you to turn in your time sheets, but I don’t turn in my own, my negative role-modeling will speak louder than whatever words I say.
Social Proof: It’s natural for humans to unconsciously look to the behavior of their peers to see how to behave, especially in situations that contain some ambiguity. By letting your lawyers know how “most other lawyers” are actually behaving, it increases the likelihood that the stragglers will begin to adopt those same behaviors.
Choice: People in general don’t like their freedom to choose being taken away, and lawyers, with their higher needs for Autonomy, especially don’t like it. For example, if I say to you “I need you to attend the partners’ meeting”, I’m likely to get pushback. But one interesting study2 showed that just by adding the phrase “but you’re free to choose” at the end of a request, it can nearly double compliance! (It is believed that this works by reminding the person you’re trying to influence that they retain the ultimate choice.)
These are examples of principles of influence that can be used effectively without triggering reactance. For more information about the social psychology of influence, and how to harness these principles to herd your cats, please feel free to reach out to us at https://www.lawyerbrain.com/our-services/influencing-lawyers/.
2 Christopher J. Carpenter (2013) A Meta-Analysis of the Effectiveness of the “But You Are Free” Compliance-Gaining Technique, Communication Studies, 64:1, 6-17, DOI: 10.1080/10510974.2012.727941 This journal article reports on a meta-analysis of 42 different studies, all of which used some variation of the “but you’re free to choose” technique.
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