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Quotation Marks
Rather than just letting the villainous partner get away with bad behaviour, be sneaky, be clever and use praise when they’re doing the right thing

Are your partners ego-depleted?

Are your partners ego-depleted?


Dr Bob Murray explains how to deal with the dark side of a leader's ego depletion in the office – starting with praise and food

The idea that successful law firm partners might be what psychologists call ‘ego depleted’ may seem somewhat strange. Many of them have quite substantial egos which, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing so long as it doesn’t veer into clinical narcissism.

But ego depletion has its dark side which, under certain circumstances can make people unpleasant to work or live with. Not long ago, I was talking to the head of a business services unit of a large multinational law firm. He was venting his frustration, as well as considerable anger, against a number of partners in the firm’s London office. They had been treating his people with considerable rudeness and their behaviour was bullying at times. These partners were treated by the firm as untouchables because they were successful rainmakers bringing in large sums of money. Younger partners, senior associates and others often saw these people as role models to be emulated. Their bad behaviour was constantly excused – sadly, even by senior management.


In May last year, the International Bar Association (IBA) – of which I’m a member – produced a detailed report into bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession throughout the world. In the UK, the bullying rates were higher than the international average. Most bullying goes unreported, as do up to 75 per cent of all cases of sexual harassment. British law firms have a real problem in this area, as other UK-specific reports in 2018 and 2019 also show. A while ago, a senior partner at Herbert Smith Freehills (alas now deceased) said that successful partners tended to put on what he called their “asshole cloak”. They seemed to think they had the right to treat their fellow workers badly, as long as they treated their clients well. As part of a report into mental health in the Australian legal profession, that I completed last year, I interviewed a female senior associate. She was a beautiful, clever woman and a brilliant lawyer. She was destined for partnership and had already been put forward.

Yet when I met her, she had just resigned. “Why are you leaving the firm?” I asked. “Have you any idea of the number of times I have been propositioned or harassed by partners and important clients?” Her eyes were watery; the tears not far away. “I have reported the incidents, and nothing has happened – either to the partners or the clients.” She wound up joining the in-house legal team of a major telco. The firm she left was a highly-regarded UK-based multinational. The alleged abusers are still there. I was thinking of these conversations and reports when I read a number of recent studies into ego depletion – the idea that we only have a limited ability to exercise ethical selfcontrol.

In Donald Trump’s case, for example, this may be very little indeed. In neurochemical terms, ego depletion is closely related to the rise and fall of the level of glutamate in the brain. Its action can be seen at work in the famous studies of parole court judges who let more people out on parole just after they’d eaten: food ingestion increases the flow of neural glutamate. So when their glutamate levels decreased, they applied less thought to the individual issues and fell back to the default (don’t let the person out). They became less altruistic and less ethical in the way they went about their work. The idea of ego depletion is not new – it’s been around for over a decade. But what is new is the research that’s shown its effect on moral and ethical behaviour. This applies particularly to firm or team leaders. The researchers behind a recent study found that if a leader displayed ethical behaviour to their teams during the day, they were more likely to display the opposite later – maybe towards their family.

A partner showing benevolent concern and altruism towards clients over the course of the day may become a bully towards their team when they come back to the office. This latter behaviour is due to the offender having a sense of what’s called ‘moral license’. Moral licensing is a phenomenon in which people, after doing something good, feel they have earned the right to act in a negative manner. Again, it’s because of the depletive action of diminishing glutamate. According to the researchers it’s not easy to be ethical: “Being ethical means leaders often have to suppress their own self-interest (they must do ‘what’s right’ as opposed to ‘what’s profitable’), and they have to monitor not only the performance outcomes of subordinates but also the means (to ensure that ethical/appropriate practices were followed).” Simply put, ethical behaviour leads to mental fatigue and moral licensing, and this leads to leaders, such as firm partners, being more abusive to their teams or other, nonlegal subordinates such as business development managers. The abuses the IBA and other researchers found included ridiculing, insulting and expressing unwarranted anger toward employees, giving them the silent treatment and reminding them frequently of past mistakes or failures.


The level of glutamate reduces under stress. Since the stress level on partners and lawyers is generally increasing by something like 70 per cent every four years, ego depletion is bound to increase. As the need for revenue increases and as clients demand ever more for ever less, firm leaders will continue to select partners who are good at bringing in new clients and revenue, even if they are known to be harassers and bullies. If the firm seems content to overlook bad behaviour, there are still things that the colleagues and team members of the ego depleted partner can do. The first is to praise the partner when they are being ethical. Praise causes a key part of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, to produce the neurochemical dopamine. Dopamine is the most powerful of the elements in the reward system – the others are the bonding neurochemical oxytocin and glutamate. It can act as a substitute for glutamate and counter the effect of ego depletion.

So rather than just letting the villainous partner get away with bad behaviour, be sneaky, be clever and use praise when they’re doing the right thing. They will soon do more of it to get the reward. The other thing you can do is to make sure that partner takes breaks and has a snack while doing so. Of course, you can praise them for taking a break – that’s really high-level persuasion. The same tactics can be used on your stressed life partner who, having been a good leader all day, breaks bad.

Get them to snack and to rest and give praise when they do. You can’t lose – unless, like President Trump, you’re dealing with an ego depleted narcissistic psychopath. In that case, you’re living with or working with the wrong person and it’s time for you or them to quit because there’s nothing you can do (just like the senior associate I talked to). Most important firm leaders must be shown that bullying and harassment will not be tolerated, no matter how much revenue the individual is bringing in. Ego depletion may be a reason for bad behaviour but it’s not a valid excuse. A number of firms that I work with are doing well in this area. Such firms deserve praise – and clients.

Dr Bob Murray is a behavioural psychologist with an interest in legal and professional services. For the latest on human behaviour and wellness, and how these relate to leadership and strategy, sign up for Dr Murray’s weekly newsletter Today’s Research