Engaging in Engagement

Words are powerful. A word can be a cause or symptom of a problem or part of a solution. The right words can close a deal, resolve a dispute, or simply brighten someone’s day, and the wrong words can trigger an argument, break down negotiations or damage a relationship. Knowing this, the importance of rhetoric, which Merriam-Webster defines as “the art of speaking or writing effectively,” becomes clear in the context of our personal and professional lives. The study of rhetoric dates back to ancient Rome and Greece, so we might think of rhetoric, for purposes of this article, as a timeless skill.

A more recent development, yet related in many respects to the study of rhetoric, is the study of professional engagement. In her book, Positive Professionals: Creating High-Performing Profitable Firms Through the Science of Engagement, Anne Brafford describes professional engagement as a state of being “motivated to achieve optimal performance.” More detailed descriptors from academic research and survey criteria include vigor (resilience and energy), dedication (feeling challenged and enthusiastic and finding purpose in work), and flow (feeling happily absorbed in work). Brafford’s work illustrates that professional engagement can lead to increased profitability, productivity, and client satisfaction, as well as reductions in turnover and absenteeism.

Efforts to achieve an engaged workforce require the investment of time and resources, and it can be daunting to address the challenge at first. Every effort, however, must begin somewhere, and I suggest beginning with conversation. Powerful words can lead to powerful results.

A bit more on rhetoric. By definition, rhetoric is effective. In its causal function, rhetoric can generate contagious emotion within groups. Examples from law school and in our profession are many. Law students might complain about reading load or unfair grading, and colleagues might complain about workload or unfair project assignments. On the positive side, law students might admire a professor or celebrate a classmate on a successful presentation, and lawyers might share positive client feedback or celebrate the successes of their firm. These conversations, whether they present as complaints or celebrations, meaningfully change the emotions of the people involved in the discussion.

Personally, I recall several examples of this effect. Talking to my classmates in the hallway after a law school exam, for instance, was enough to convince me I was sure to fail. My emotions took a nosedive. Conversely, as a practicing attorney, I recall a day of interviewing law students for our firm’s summer associate program, a day during which I told the story (again and again, and again) of why I chose this law firm and what I love about my practice. At the end of that day, I found myself hoarse and exhausted, but also enthusiastic regarding my firm, my colleagues, and my career. Talking about my experience and what I found rewarding created positive emotion.

Often, such expression is symptomatic. When negative, it can be a valid articulation of frustration with a problematic situation. In those cases, voicing complaints can be healthy in that open communication might lead to acknowledgment of issues and progress toward solutions. When positive, such expression can operate as an incentive to continue placing emphasis on identified aspects of life, school, or practice. Essential in all of this, of course, is a sense of safety. Employees will not express themselves honestly unless they feel safe in doing so, and law firms should work diligently to encourage honest conversation, communicate clearly that there will be no penalty for open expression, and actually listen to what people say.

Once an issue has been identified, rhetoric can also be part of the solution. Taking the time to step away from phones and e-mails to talk to colleagues face to face makes space for stability and civility in the workplace. This space, which we all have the power to reclaim, is where ideas can be shared, debated, and nourished. This space is where engagement begins.

My law firm is an example. Like other firms, we continually look for ways to better serve our clients, our communities, and each other. About two years ago, several conversations started around the firm focused on attorney well-being, professional development, and professional engagement. Firm leadership, talent management, and attorneys at all levels were pulled into these conversations. Ideas were shared and challenged, plans were proposed, tweaked and developed, and action began to be taken.

First, our talent management team conducted a needs assessment. Based on the results of this assessment, talent management worked closely with firm leadership to develop clearly defined associate core competencies for professional development. Also resulting from the needs assessment was the revitalization of an Associates’ Advisory Committee, a committee of 12 associates representing various associate levels, sections, and office locations. Some committee members were elected by peers, and some were placed by leadership. The committee serves as a communication conduit from the associate body to firm leadership.

Another result of our broader conversations was the creation of an Attorney Engagement and Retention Task Force. Task force membership is made up of equity and non-equity partners, associates at all levels, attorneys from most offices and practice areas, members of key committees, section heads, and members of the firm’s board of directors. The task force met for the first time in October 2018 and established its mission: to gather data, explore ideas, and then make informed, forward-thinking proposals to firm leadership for long-term solutions aimed at attorney engagement and healthy retention, with a goal of presenting solid proposals to firm leadership in written and/or presentation form by the summer of 2019. Already, the task force has engaged in significant and informative data gathering, and membership has divided into sub-groups focused on researching and bringing forward proposals on identified topics of interest.

All of this is not to say we’ve got it figured out. It is simply to say that we’re working on it, we’re talking about it, and that is significant. Looking back at some of the words used to define engagement—motivation, energy, enthusiasm, purpose, absorption—it is clear that working on this engagement project has, in itself, encouraged professional engagement for many of my colleagues and for me. It begins with a conversation.

About the Author

Carrie Stanton is a senior associate in the corporate section of Williams Mullen, based in the Charlottesville, VA office.

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