Law firms are in a period of dramatic change in which high work engagement and innovation are necessary to survive and thrive in the future. Worker engagement and innovation flourish in workplaces characterized by psychological safety, a tolerance for mistakes, and a culture of caring for lawyers as people, and not just professional fee-generators. Lawyers wanting to build such flourishing workplaces will discover a number of obstacles. For example, personality research on lawyers has found a pattern of intolerance for mistakes and intense skepticism. These traits can significantly harm firms’ ability to innovate and survive in the uncertain future. Future-minded law firms will rise to the challenge.
Making Firms “Safe” For Innovation
A major factor contributing to innovative cultures is “psychological safety.” Psychological safety describes how much individuals perceive interpersonal threat when they take risks at work including, for example, asking questions, seeking feedback, making and reporting mistakes, or proposing new ideas. Psychological safety is a key factor for increasing work engagement. When employees perceive psychological safety, they are less likely to be distracted by thoughts of needing to manage their supervisors’ perceptions and can immerse themselves in their work.
Psychological safety also is a key factor for organizational learning behaviors that lead to new knowledge creation and innovation. Organizational learning refers to the process of improving an organization by integrating new knowledge. Learning occurs through iterative cycles of idea-generation, planning to execute ideas, taking action to test ideas, and reflection to examine results. Evidence suggests that organizational learning contributes to high performance in changing work environments and to more satisfying work experiences.
Behaviors that generate organizational learning include speaking up, collaboration, and experimentation. “Speaking up” includes making suggestions, discussing errors, raising concerns, and asking for help or feedback. Collaboration refers to cooperation among people who are trying to achieve a common goal. Experimentation is the trial-and-error process involved in new knowledge-creation
While learning behaviors have a significant potential to benefit employees and organizations, they all carry the risk of criticism. People are exposed to the judgment of others as being incompetent, negative or disruptive. These risks are simply too much for many people to bear. In one study of managers and staff, more than 85% reported that they had not spoken up about a concern they had. Developing a psychologically safe culture may be the antidote to relieve the fear of taking risks that ultimately may benefit everyone. Research has shown that people who feel psychologically safe perceive lower risks of engaging in learning behaviors.
Three Ways to Boost Psychological Safety
Organizations can enhance psychological safety in many ways; three are discussed below.
- Encourage Lawyers to Speak Up
To foster psychological safety, provide supportive responses to lawyers’ and staff’s questions and concerns rather than being defensive, critical or punitive. Speaking up is personally risky, and people may not be willing to take that risk again if their efforts are met with a defensive response or ignored.
- Emphasize Learning Over Perfection
An environment that emphasizes learning over perfect performance incubates new knowledge creation. Those who are focused on learning rather than displaying competence are more likely to try new and challenging tasks, persevere in spite of hardships (including negative feedback) and take advantage of opportunities to learn new skills. Organizational messages that may thwart new knowledge creation include those that convey “zero tolerance for mistakes”; that nothing short of perfect competence is acceptable; and that independence, self-reliance and individual achievement give power and are valued and rewarded over interdependence. Research also shows that, in organizations that highly value independence and displays of competence, people rarely seek needed help because of a concern about looking weak.
- Reduce The Impact of Hierarchy
Organizational hierarchy also impacts psychological safety and organizational learning. For low-status employees, hierarchy undermines psychological safety because they tend to feel less certain of their value, less able to bring up problems, and more afraid that mistakes will be held against them.
Hierarchy also impacts high-status employees. Particularly relevant to law firm partners is research suggesting that, the higher a person’s status, the less likely they are to ask for needed help—especially men who are socialized to prize independence. Organizations that want to thrive will establish the value of competence and failure, and also of interdependence.
Obstacles to Psychological Safety in Law Firms
Psychological safety is not among many law firms’ strengths. In fact, the typical big-firm culture has many attributes that squelch psychological safety: firms are hierarchical, individual achievement is venerated, interdependent behaviors are less rewarded, competence is king, learning time is considered expensive and inefficient, and perfection often is expected.
In part, the dread of imperfection that often pervades firms stems from real concerns that errors could lead at least to dissatisfied or lost clients and, at worst, to malpractice claims and lost bar licenses. But research suggests that errors will be caught more frequently in psychologically safe environments where people feel comfortable raising concerns and reporting errors rather than trying to cover them up. This very legitimate goal militates in favor of more psychological safety, not less.
Still, lawyers truly need to be obsessive about certain aspects of their jobs—especially, for example, tracking court deadlines. Some deadlines are jurisdictional, which means that, if they are missed, the case is over. No excuses or second chances are allowed. If individual lawyers repeatedly make such errors without any consequences, the law firm can be held legally liable for negligent supervision. This means that law firms cannot create an entirely psychologically safe environment for lawyers. Certain repeated errors will get lawyers fired.
But the goal of eliminating serious legal errors does not validate spreading fear and intolerance for imperfection to all aspects of the job. For example, on an individual level, new associates just starting the practice of law need room to learn without fear that any mistake or help-seeking will crush their reputations or get them fired. Research shows that newcomers that asked for help and sought socially-valuable information performed better and stayed longer in the organization.
Partner behavior also can be significantly influenced by psychological safety. For example, partners will be less likely to collaborate on client issues if they are fearful that any difference in knowledge will be viewed as a reputation-ruining weakness. Further, fear of criticism may deter efforts to innovate even where progress would significantly benefit the firm.
For example, an area in which innovation seriously is needed is in creating alternatives to the hourly-rate structure of billing clients. Many legal critics place this innovation as a top priority for law firms’ future success. In an effort to be innovative, multiple former colleagues of mine have made efforts to manage portfolios of legal matters for a fixed fee and have been continually criticized for any sign of diminished profitability. The aggravation from such experiences does not leave partners energized to continue trying to innovate—in fact, it prompted frequent thoughts of quitting
Many law firms are at a crossroads and no one can predict their future. They will need to invent it. Surviving and thriving will depend on a vibrant firm culture that incubates innovation, is resilient to setbacks, and is propelled by engaged lawyers who are committed to a shared vision of the future. An intolerance for failure will not serve firms well in the future. Failures provide important learning experiences. In fact, research shows that failures have a higher learning value than success. Organizations that learn through experimentation are more likely to be successful in the long term than those that do not. Accordingly, future-minded law firms will foster psychological safety for their lawyers to contribute to higher job satisfaction, work engagement, better performance and much-needed innovation.
About the Author
Anne Brafford is the chair of the Law Practice Division’s Attorney Well-Being Committee. She is a co-founder of Aspire, an educational and consulting firm focused on lawyer thriving, is a former partner at Morgan Lewis, and is a doctoral student and teaching assistant in positive organizational psychology. Anne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.