If people in your law firm emphasize their sheer brainpower and IQ, your firm has a fixed mindset culture. The human drive to fit within a workplace culture means that people will naturally try to emulate workplace values, beliefs, and behaviors. Asking people to act contrary to the organization’s theory of intelligence will only cause anxiety and resistance to change. If your firm has a fixed mindset culture, mistakes are unacceptable, hidden, and never discussed. The intellectual struggle and experience of improving through practice is not embraced. It is in these firms that diversity, equity, and inclusion never has a chance to take hold.
A growth mindset is the belief that intelligence is malleable and people can grow, learn, and change with determination, hard work, and practice. A fixed mindset is the belief that intelligence is a stable trait based on sheer brainpower and IQ. A growth mindset can be difficult for lawyers to embrace. It is the opposite of the beliefs, values, and assumptions that many lawyers often share, and that are further ingrained in law school about how to have a discussion and make a decision. Most lawyers and their firms share a cultural approach to conflict that generally means taking a position and debating that position with colleagues to find the one right answer. It’s how lawyers develop confidence and select the right decision. The irony is that the more personal the topic of conflict becomes, often the more conflict-averse lawyers become, and less able to welcome new ideas, take risks, and demonstrate compassion for anyone who has not mastered the art of argument.
Since 2020, my team and I have been working with law firms, state agencies, and municipalities to foster more diverse, equitable, and inclusive cultures. We have assessed workplace culture with respect to DEIB practices and developed strategic “how-to” plans. These plans explain the steps for increasing diversity at all levels of the workforce, improving equity in decision-making, and developing a culture of inclusion. We also have designed and delivered training to improve inclusive leader skills. The one distinguishing factor that shows up in success stories is that those organizations have empowered leaders, who unabashedly advocate the imperative that every person in the organization embrace a growth mindset for DEIB work.
Here are the five steps to create a growth mindset culture:
Step One: Leaders Set the Stage
Leaders must learn and practice noticing who speaks up in meetings and who is quiet. They must pay attention to who gets the stretch assignments that make a career and who is left out. They must encourage people who have been marginalized in the firm to speak up, ask for what they want, and share their ideas. They must manage meetings so that no one person takes up too much space, and when they see microaggressions in the workplace, like talking over others or not acknowledging contributions to the discussion, they must call out the behavior. They must also demonstrate their humanity and vulnerability before asking others to share their mistakes.
It does not matter what espoused values a firm claims to embrace. Unless the most empowered firm leaders demonstrate those values in their actions, nothing will change. Telling the people in your law firm who want to experience the same success of those lawyers at the top to take risks by changing their behavior when the most successful people at the firm behave differently is a waste of time. The insincerity is obvious. When law firms change their culture, you can be certain the new ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving are modeled by those at the top, beginning with embracing a growth mindset and demonstrating it in action.
Leaders are the public figures who drive forward a DEIB culture change and whose behavior is emulated by others who want to succeed in the workplace. They must embrace, talk about, and demonstrate the use of a growth mindset powerfully and prolifically. That’s the one addition to DEIB work that makes the difference between success and failure.
Step Two: Explain the Benefits
Explain the link between having a growth mindset and becoming a better lawyer. We build intelligence when we are challenged with changing our behavior and then practice self-awareness and self-management. People cope more effectively with challenges and setbacks when they embody a growth theory of intelligence.
The business case for DEIB states that diversity correlates with stronger, more innovative, and more profitable groups that make better decisions as a whole. More recently, the business case has been reframed by a group of Wharton researchers as the business imperative for DEI. The business imperative arose from the collective fear and frustration in response to the global pandemic and work-from-home experiment, the global movement to end systemic racism and police brutality, and the recognition of the disparate impact on the lives of employees, who are people of color and women. Where the business case states that the organization will perform better with diversity, the business imperative references public demand for change and implies that leaders have the power and responsibility to respond by creating a better workplace culture with transparency about their DEI-related initiatives with their goals and metrics, and progress toward goals.
The business case and the business imperative are rational explanations of why diversity, equity, and inclusion are beneficial collectively. Developing a growth mindset not only opens the door to developing an inclusive and equitable culture, it answers the question that individuals have: What’s in it for me?
Step Three: Prioritize
Make a growth mindset culture a priority action step for attracting the best and brightest lawyers to work for your firm and creating an attractive brand when it comes to recruiting, hiring, and retention. Research has demonstrated that more people are attracted to organizations with a growth theory of intelligence because it sends the message that anyone can succeed and be rewarded there with hard work.
Having the discussions, making the decisions, and practicing behavior changes that support creating diversity at all levels of the law firm, and a culture that embraces equity and is inclusive is dependent on the most empowered leaders creating a culture with a growth mindset foundation, talking about their personal experiences embracing a growth mindset, and modeling the behaviors of a growth mindset for everyone else in the workplace to see and emulate. Changing behavior to create an inclusive and equitable workplace means taking risks, making mistakes, and learning from them. It means having open, honest, and difficult conversations about differences and performance measures and career trajectories.
Step Four: Evaluate
Make having a growth mindset a criteria for performance evaluation and integrate the skill into the firm’s leadership development program. Developing a DEIB culture asks people to change how they think, what they feel, and their actions. It is challenging and there will be setbacks. A growth theory of intelligence means that people are willing, able, and expected to practice new behaviors and new communication styles and have new and different conversations. They need to know that it is okay if they are less than perfect, and the only way to do that is to make trying and risk-taking in this respect part of their performance evaluation.
Step Five: Reward
Developing a culture of equity and inclusion depends on people telling their stories of facing and overcoming personal hardships with the support of sponsors, mentors, coaches, and affinity groups. Reward people who share these types of personal stories. Publicize those stories. If you want people to embrace a growth mindset culture, make sure to signal that efforts are underway to change the culture. Emphasize the link between a new growth mindset culture and well-being by emphasizing stories of overcoming personal hardships and improvement through resilience, tenacity, practice, and hard work.
By following these five steps law firm leaders will create a growth mindset culture on which to build a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive law firm.
About the Author
Susan Letterman White is the managing partner of Letterman White Consulting, LLC, which consults and trains law firms on leadership, diversity, equity, and inclusion, business development, and career planning. Contact Susan on Twitter @susanletterman.