Agile and still angry

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Written by Alicia Fortinberry and published by Lawyers Weekly

A short while ago I delivered a leadership program to all levels of a large and highly successful law firm with offices in many countries. I was struck by the common thread of helplessness, isolation and fear from top to bottom, which had not been there to anything like that extent the year before.

What was going on? The firm was growing quickly, taking on new people, larger projects and new kinds of work. For many the hours were ridiculously long, even for a top-tier law firm. The stress of uncertainty both in terms of the work itself and the business environment was very high. As the business struggled to maintain relevance in a fast-changing client, regulatory and technological landscape, large changes were made very quickly around how and where people worked and what was expected of them.

As everywhere, the dark cloud of job uncertainty hovered. While people felt a strong loyalty and affection for the firm, a number were questioning their alternatives. However, many of the partners, their lawyers and support services professionals were all highly specialized and felt they couldn’t just leave and find another firm that would enable them to maintain their lifestyle. Or, for some—especially support staff—any decent lifestyle. They felt trapped.

There was a lot of grumbling, and internal divisions—from the more junior members to the more senior, from one geographic location to another, from one practice group to another, even between the legal staff and business services. This increased the level of stress, anxiety and in some cases immobilization.

“We are being given work that doesn’t fit our experience or enhance or career development,” said the juniors. And, “we feel we can’t ask questions or we’ll be seen as stupid.”

“We aren’t being heard or supported by our senior leaders,” said the senior lawyers. “And the juniors don’t ask when they don’t know, so we wind up having to redo almost all of their work.”

“We are not getting the support we need from New York, nor do we feel we have a voice in decisions,” said the senior partners and other leaders. “And our SAs and new partners aren’t managing and developing the juniors.”

Welcome to the mid-to-large size law firm of today. Lack of relational safety and real autonomy, and the resulting physical and emotional illness, pervades almost every large organization. One in four working days in large law firms are lost to stress.

In the absence of trust and open communication, misunderstanding, resentment and misapprehension thrive. The much-touted move to the Agile workplace, which was meant to flatten hierarchies and enhance cooperation, autonomy and innovation, has so far not lived up to its promise, and in many law firms hasn’t even been tried.

Real culture change requires more than rearranging titles, walls and team size and function. We must accept what human beings are all about. Why we come to work, what motivates us and our clients, what paralyzes and degrades, what satisfies and strengthens.

We must create a future fit for humans, not just machines.

People are all about relationships. Even as recently as a few years ago, audiences and clients were surprised and even sceptical when my partner Dr Bob Murray and I announced this fact. Now, thanks to the relentless tide of scientific research and a few best-sellers (including ours) no one disagrees.

But what does this incredible realization really mean for day-to-day life in organizations, law and otherwise (or families or communities)?

It means that almost the entire focus must be on building trust, belonging and mutual support. Whatever the organization thinks it’s selling, from a neurogenetic point of view, it’s really offering supportive relationships.

To meet the client or customer’s needs, employees must work well together. To do that they must get a neurogenetic reward from the process. This is what kept our foraging ancestors energized and alive. Not just eating the berries or slaying the woolly mammoth, but the sociability of gathering and the excitement and shared danger of hunting.

The key characteristic of today’s high performing teams is that they want to be together. No matter how you slice and dice the workforce, if people don’t feel they belong and are valued it won’t work. If they can’t access the innate pleasure of cooperation, there will be little or no engagement, learning, innovation or client-centricity.

The relationships between colleagues is just as important a selling point as the client relationship. We all, consciously or unconsciously, want to join a tribe whose members respect and enjoy each other. Even if we have to buy those goods or services in order to feel a part of that.

What would a law firm look like if it truly aligned its policies and vision to what we call “human design specs?” Here are some symptoms of a harmonious, human-centric organization.

People would:

  • communicate frequently face-to-face
  •  not use unexplained generalities or jargon in speech, written communication or vision statements
  • look to catch each other doing things right—reports, colleagues and leaders
  • avoid online feedback—just hold clear, open conversations
  • go out of their way to help each other and collaborate
  • look for and remark on what they have in common
  • laugh freely and often
  • ask for what they needed in ways the other person could understand and deliver
  • base their relationships on mutual needs, and openly state the consequences if those needs aren’t me\

Can our firms, and even our communities, achieve this? Yes, they can, and we have helped organizations around the world achieve it. And what is the point of them if they don’t? I believe 20 or 10, or even 5 or 2 years from now, people will look back on today as the last chance to turn things around and reclaim our economy and our humanity. They will give fervent thanks if we have. And mourn our fate if we haven’t.

Alicia Fortinberry, PhD is the co-founder of the global consultancy Fortinberry Murray. For the past 20 years she has worked for law firms and other professional services companies in the US, the UK, Australia and Asia advising them in the areas of strategy, leadership, culture change, marketing and business development. She is the author, with Bob Murray PhD, of a number of books, most recently Leading the Future: The Human Science of Law Firm Strategy and Leadership.