This article originally appeared in the subscriber edition of PD Quarterly, February 2020 34

by Paula Davis-Laack and Scott A. Westfahl

Interesting new research in building resilient teams is particularly applicable to PD teams who face increased stress and pressure in their daily roles.

In the past ten years, there has been a highly commendable, long-overdue effort to address lawyer burnout, anxiety, and depression through training and the application of groundbreaking research on resilience, grit, and applied positive psychology. To the PD community’s great credit, law firms and in-house legal departments are prioritizing and investing in lawyer well-being in ways that would have been inconceivable just a decade ago. Quite laudably, the PD community has generously shared ideas and resources across organizations, understanding that creating a healthier legal profession should be a common mission rather than one firm’s strategic, competitive talent advantage. PD professionals have also devoted an increasing amount of time to resilience, grit, mindfulness, and well-being at their key professional development conferences (e.g., the Professional Development Consortium’s winter meeting and annual summer conference, and NALP’s Professional Development Institute).

To date, nearly all of the research, training, and other interventions aimed at preventing burnout and depression in the legal profession have focused on helping individuals anticipate and better manage stress and related causation factors. We believe that the next frontier of this effort should be to explore how principles of resilience can be applied to teams and how leaders can create teams that are better able to flex and adapt constructively when under stress. In the legal profession, this work will be complicated by the fact that lawyer teams are generally very loosely defined and lack process and infrastructure through which resilience principles could be introduced. That challenge can be overcome and, indeed, we are working with law firms and in-house legal departments to address it head-on.

Yet, as we view the landscape, we believe there is another community in the legal profession that DOES actually work
in teams and where we believe the time is right for piloting approaches to building resilient teams: the legal Professional Development community itself. In this article, we will build the case for why this is important, examine principles of resilience that can be applied to teams, and provide specific suggestions for how PD leaders can build more resilient PD teams. Our hope is that we convince the PD community that if we put on our own oxygen mask first and pilot new approaches toward building resilient teams, we can then much more easily move to applying those approaches to lawyers and improving the way they work in teams.

Why Do PD Teams Need to Build Resilience?

This may be self-evident to experienced PD professionals, but we first want to show why PD teams particularly need to devote time and energy to building their resilience. Experts suggest that teams especially need to build their resilience when they face challenges such as:

  • Difficult and/or high-stakes assignments. PD teams are being asked to do more for less, and much more organizational attention is being paid to PD initiatives now than ever before.
  • High consequence work. As PD professionals are asked to take on more strategic roles around talent and leadership development, the stakes are rising much higher and partners are demanding more impact.
  • Unclear team roles. Often PD teams are under-resourced and over-stretched, with team members playing multiple, sometimes conflicting roles.
  • Innovating — the process itself is full of missteps and setbacks. PD teams are being asked to help drive innovation in a profession that expects perfection the first time you try something.
  • Angry/upset/skeptical clients. No one in the professional world has clients who are more skeptical — and sometimes hostile and vocal — about training and development initiatives than law firm PD teams.
  • Poor results. PD teams are in a tough environment and failure will happen, especially with low levels of leadership buy-in and support.
  • Ambiguous direction/goals. PD teams often face this issue because of the “flat” structure of law firms, with different parts of the firm and different partners articulating very different goals.

We have only scratched the surface with our notes above to illustrate how much PD teams could benefit from becoming more resilient. As globalization, technology/AI, and new competitors increasingly threaten to disrupt the markets for legal clients and talent, this will only become more important.

So, What Do Resilient Teams Look Like?

Team resilience is defined as a set of skills that enable a group’s capacity for stress-related growth and sustained
performance. Importantly, team resilience is more than just getting a group to bounce back—they must also learn from setbacks to better position themselves for inevitable future challenges and stressors.

Resilient teams:

  • resolve challenges as effectively as possible;
  • maintain team health and resources;
  • recover quickly; and
  • display the ability to handle future challenges together.

Fundamentally, research shows that certain behaviors influence how successful teams become, for example:

  • Speaking up — successful teams require honest, direct feedback and conversations between team members, including asking questions and discussing missteps;
  • Collaboration — team members must share information, discuss what’s working and what’s not working, and then coordinate their actions; and
  • Reflection — team members must critically examine the results of their actions and efforts. Debriefing facilitates information exchange and elaboration (so there is less ambiguity), enables team member support, and increases self-reflection and self-efficacy.

Complex, changing, fast-paced work environments require that teams quickly adapt to missteps, failure, slow results, and challenges generally. PD teams work in exactly the kind of environment that requires more resilience.

What Do Resilient Teams Do Differently?

In our research and experience with teams of legal professionals, we note that there are several key things that resilient teams do differently:

They recognize and actively mitigate against the producer-manager dilemma. Harvard Law School’s leadership programs for law firm and law department leaders always begin with cases that illustrate how the “producer-manager dilemma” significantly impedes effective leadership and team building within our profession. The dilemma occurs and worsens as professionals gain seniority and continue to need to “produce” client/technical work, as well as take on an increasingly long list of leadership, business development, and organizational responsibilities. Moving from being individual contributors to team participants and leaders requires professionals to invest more time, focus, and thoughtful energy into the healthy functioning of teams. Unfortunately, the urgent crowds out the important, and without a strong cultural and organizational commitment, professional teams are often dramatically underled and less likely to achieve the full benefits that a collaborative, diverse, and inclusive team effort can provide. Resilient teams are more likely to be found in organizations that provide training, tools, and incentives to help professionals identify and mitigate against the effects of the producer-manager dilemma. Team leaders create resilient teams through:

  • application of more formal team processes, tools, and growth mindset frameworks;
  • evaluating and optimizing what, how, and to whom they delegate;
  • building and using their internal and external networks to help their teams; and
  • establishing and supporting team norms such as those described below.

So, what should PD leaders do?

Have conversations with your team about the reality of this dilemma and that their jobs become more complicated as they get more senior. Encourage them to consider how they delegate and how they use their internal and external networks to manage their ever-growing responsibilities. Ask them to challenge their mindset—do they have too big a fear of letting go or missing out?

They stay motivated. Resilient teams stay motivated by accessing the power of intrinsic motivation, i.e., motivation from within the work itself and how it gets done. Indeed, research shows that focusing on intrinsic goals leads to higher performance, well-being, and motivation for teams. Team members become more intrinsically motivated when they have a choice or a say in how their work unfolds, feel like they belong on the team and have developed high-quality relationships with their colleagues, and feel confident in their ability to learn more challenging skills. The challenge is for leaders to create a team environment that supports those valuable outcomes.

So, what should PD leaders do?

Talk more regularly with your team about WHY your work matters—including at the project level—to help create a sense of mission and purpose around your work. Create an environment that invests people in the team’s success and celebrates it. Allow junior team members to have more of a say in how they will do their work as it unfolds—again, challenge your fear of letting go. Ask whether team members have the performance improvement skills and support they need to improve their daily work and if such skills and support are missing, determine how to close that gap. It’s also important to be clear when giving assignments and minimize conflicting requests and ambiguity (both known accelerants of burnout).

They build psychological safety and belonging. A critical foundation of resilient teams is psychological safety—a climate in which people feel comfortable expressing and being themselves without fear of negative consequences. In order for teams to appropriately manage change and workplace complexity, people need to feel comfortable sharing their knowledge, which means sharing concerns, questions, mistakes, and partially formed ideas. Research has found that teams that employ more positive emotions and focus on solidifying the connectedness of the people within their teams experience more of this type of openness, and thus higher levels of team resilience. In addition, teams that are able to openly and clearly discuss both positive and negative experiences are better able to work through adversity and have higher levels of trust and higher levels of resilience.

Psychological safety is built when team members, particularly team leaders, are accessible and approachable, hold people accountable in a fair and consistent way, discuss working styles and strengths, limit side conversations, and use small, attentive courtesies like looking up from their phones or computers when someone enters the room.

So, what should PD leaders do?

In addition to the suggestions above, set team norms about participation in meetings, emphasizing that all opinions matter. Don’t always lead team meetings yourself—rotate leadership. Use team decisionmaking and reflection processes that encourage each team member to give one pro and one con about an idea, or to state one thing that is going well and one thing the team should take a look at doing differently. Continually give positive reinforcement, particularly to the junior members who speak up and offer new ideas. Thank them after the meeting in private and encourage them, even if the ideas were not adopted.

They build group cohesion. Group cohesion is critical to resilience because it is grounded in a sense of positive energy among team members, which greatly enhances the team’s ability to grow from negative experiences. One way to improve cohesion in a group is to ask team members to consider whether their colleagues are positively energized when working with them. You are around a positively energizing colleague when you can say “yes” to these statements:

  • I would go to this person when I need to be “pepped up.”
  • After interacting with this person I feel more energy to do my work.
  • I feel invigorated when I interact with this person.
  • I feel increased vitality when I interact with this person.

When people have a chance to work with positively energizing leaders and colleagues, they experience significantly higher personal well-being, higher job satisfaction, higher engagement with the organization, and higher job performance. Emotions are contagious—it’s easy to tell when a team is feeding off of positive energy or just going through the motions. Cultivating positive relationships, defined as those that generate enrichment, vitality, and learning is one of the most important things a team can do. Positive relationships increase resilience, allow team members to better deal with intense emotions, produce higher levels of trust, creativity, and innovation, create
healthier team functioning generally, and increase commitment to the team and organization.

So, what should PD leaders do?

Share this research with your team and encourage team members to brainstorm particular ways they can be more energizing for each other. Come up with a list of specific things team members agree to do or a team charter that spells out the team’s commitment to cohesion and each team member’s individual responsibility to help build it. Regularly (every 6-12 months) assess how well you are doing on this dimension. Engage coaching resources to help particular individuals who may struggle.

They prioritize well-being. Paula asks teams to complete her Resilience Inventory for Teams during workshops. The statement that is almost universally scored the lowest by teams is “We are alert to and respond to early signs of overload in team members.” Resilient teams openly talk about stress and burnout, but these conversations can be difficult for many reasons. Burnout is a chronic process of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy caused by an imbalance between key job demands and job resources, and it is highly correlated with lower levels of morale and by turnover and disengagement.

While burnout is often talked about at the individual level, it’s also a systemic problem caused in part by values, process, and procedural issues within the workplace. While most attempts to address burnout and stress in law firms have focused at the individual level, this approach turns off many high-performing professionals because they know the organization is a big driver of the problem; this creates even more cynicism, a lot of finger-pointing, and no results. Teams are uniquely suited to address this challenge because teams are micro-cultures within the larger institutional culture. Positive team cultures get noticed by others within a firm, and this can open the conversation to
more widespread action.

In addition, leadership behaviors play a critical role in the wellbeing of teams. A recent study of more than 2,800 physicians (who were asked to rate their immediate supervisor) at the Mayo Clinic found that “each one-point increase in the leadership score of a physician’s immediate supervisor was associated with a 3.3% decrease in the likelihood of burnout and a 9.0% increase in satisfaction.”

So, what should PD leaders do?

Help team members to understand and recognize the symptoms and causes of burnout and have specific conversations about what those look like in the PD world. Be vulnerable with your team and share examples of times when you have faced burnout, how you responded, and where you might have received help. Let your team know that, as with the oxygen mask example, you need to be taking care of each other before you can accomplish your important mission of helping to recruit, motivate, train, develop, and engage your lawyers. Understand that as a leader, two of your key levers to avoid burnout on your team are to pay attention to autonomy and recognition.

Their team leaders provide autonomy and recognition. Employees across generations (this is not a Millennial thing) crave professional autonomy and independence in their work, and when they don’t get it, the impact is profound. Workers, junior associates for example, who have low job control in combination with high job demands experience much higher rates of coronary disease and depression than those in other categories. There are also serious bottom-line consequences. Organizations that supported an autonomous environment grew at four times the rate of control-oriented companies and had one-third the turnover.

So, what should PD leaders do?

PD leaders can influence autonomy by:

• providing a rationale when projects are presented;
• providing team members with options as to where they can do their work (which can mean creating       a variety of settings both at the office and outside of the office);
• avoiding micromanaging;
• allowing independence at the level of experience; and
• openly sharing information and allowing opportunity for meaningful input into strategy and decision     making.

Team leaders also need to provide team members with consistent recognition for their hard work. Being recognized feels so good because it’s a true sign of belonging. Research suggests that while we adapt to money pretty quickly, we never quite get used to feeling respected.1

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1 Paula used to teach resilience skills to soldiers, and the Sergeant Major of the U.S. Army (the “SMA”) attended one of her trainings. The SMA is the highest-ranking enlisted soldier in the Army, and there have only been 15 of them to date. As the SMA was preparing to leave, he called all of the training team to the front of the plenary room. The training team didn’t know what was going on but did as they were told. After a few words, the SMA gave each training team member one of his coins — a symbol of recognition, gratitude, and hard work. He shook each of our hands and thanked us for our service to our country. That coin is one of Paula’s most treasured possessions, and the moment is one she will remember for the rest of her life.

Conclusion

Professional development teams in law firms and legal departments operate in an incredibly stressful, dynamic environment. Research relating to resilience has shown that it is a trait that correlates strongly with thriving in such a demanding environment. Many legal organizations are now providing training and resources relating to the building of their lawyers’ and allied professionals’ resilience. The next frontier is for legal organizations to invest significantly more resources and attention to the building of resilient teams, and we believe that the best place to
start would be to focus on building more resilient PD teams. As we are all aware, the markets for talent and clients have never been more global or transparent, resulting in dramatically increased competition. Resilient teams will be critical to our profession’s future, and PD leaders who build and lead them will be much better equipped to help their organizations to thrive—and to convince their organizations to do the much harder work of building more resilient lawyer teams.

About the Authors

Paula Davis-Laack, JD, MAPP, is a former practicing lawyer, speaker, consultant, media contributor, and a stress and resilience expert who has designed and taught resilience workshops to thousands of professionals around the world. Paula left her law practice after seven years and earned a master’s degree in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. As part of her post-graduate training, Paula was selected to be part of the University of Pennsylvania faculty teaching and training resilience skills to soldiers as part of the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness program. The Penn team trained resilience skills to more than 40,000 soldiers and their family members.

Her articles on stress, burnout prevention, resilience, and thriving at work are prominently featured on her blogs in The Huffington Post, Forbes, Fast Company, and Psychology Today. She is the author of several e-books, with her latest called From Army Strong to Lawyer Strong®: What the Legal Profession Can Learn from The Army’s Experience Cultivating a Culture of Resilience. She is a contributing author to several books in law and healthcare. Paula will be publishing her first book with the Wharton School Press (University of Pennsylvania) in Fall 2020. It will be about burnout prevention using a team-based approach. Her expertise has been featured in and on The New
York Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, The Washington Post, Time.com, Today.com, The Steve Harvey TV show, Huffington Post Live and a variety of media outlets. She has also been featured in and on Law.com, Bloomberg Law, Law360.com, various ABA webinars and publications, and the Women’s Law Journal. Paula is a Trusted Advisor to the Professional Development Consortium (PDC).

She is the Founder and CEO of the Stress & Resilience Institute, a training and consulting firm that partners with law firms and organizations to help them reduce burnout and build resilience at the team, leader, and organizational level (www.stressandresilience.com). You can reach Paula at paula@stressandresilience.com.

 

Scott WestfahlProfessor Scott Westfahl is the Director of HLS Executive Education and also teaches courses on leadership, teams, design thinking, and innovation within the law school’s J.D. curriculum. As the Director of the Executive Education program, he leads the HLS effort to support and develop lawyers across the arc of their careers, particularly as they advance to new levels of leadership and responsibility. He oversees and teaches in Executive Education’s core, global leadership programs for law firm managing partners, emerging law firm leaders, law firm associates, and general counsel. He also collaborates with HLS colleagues and other Harvard faculty to design and teach custom programs for law firms, law departments, and other legal-related organizations. He focuses his Executive Education teaching and writing on leadership, motivation, and development of professionals, innovation, and organizational alignment from a talent management and diversity and inclusion perspective. To support diversity and inclusion in the legal profession, Scott is an advisor to the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity and hosts the LCLD’s annual Leadership Summit for managing partners and general counsel. He also serves on the Advisory Board of The Purple Campaign, the leading nonprofit organization dedicated to eradicating sexual harassment from the workplace.

Scott joined HLS from the law firm Goodwin Procter LLP, where he served from 2004–2013 as the firm’s Director of Professional Development. Prior to his work at Goodwin Procter, he spent six years leading professional development for the Washington, DC, office of McKinsey & Company. He is also an experienced business and federal regulatory attorney, having practiced law with Foley & Lardner’s Washington, DC, office from 1988–1998. Scott earned his J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1988. He frequently lectures, writes, and comments upon talent development within professional services firms and is the author of the book You Get What You Measure: Lawyer Development Frameworks and Effective Performance Evaluations (NALP, 2008) and the co-author, together with HLS Professor David B. Wilkins, of “The Leadership Imperative: A Collaborative Approach to Professional Development in the Global Age of More for Less,” Stanford Law Review, Vol. 69, June 2017. Scott is a member of the NALP PD Quarterly Advisory Group.