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Hannah Gannagé-Stewart

Deputy Editor, Solicitors Journal

Why can't lawyers give praise?

Why can't lawyers give praise?


With lawyers at increasing risk of burnout, Dr Alicia Fortinberry asks why a simple morale-boosting method is being wilfully overlooked

Over the last five working days, did you receive praise? I mean real praise, not just “thanks for that” or “I appreciate your taking the time to see me”.

These phrases are perhaps good manners, and about as meaningful as the Midwest American “have a good day”. But they are not praise.

Praise is something specific about you or what you’ve done. It can also be a statement confirming a positive relationship you have with a person (or people), or would like to have.

If your answer to the above question is ‘no’, as it is for most lawyers I ask at my talks or workshops, you are in an environment that could be hazardous to your health – mental and even physical.

If your colleagues would answer ‘no’, you are not in a high-performing environment, or one that promotes resilience, innovation or engagement.

The large amount of research that has been done on praise, including in the legal profession, shows that when given well, it has an astonishingly powerful effect.

Law firms and other organisations with a culture of praise are 20 per cent more productive than those without.

Leaders who habitually catch people doing well and affirm relationships, not only gain more commitment to themselves and their goals but ramp up energy, optimism and performance.

Praise enhances your ability to do what humans want most and what 80 per cent of our neurogenetics are geared to do: surround themselves with a network of supportive relationships.

It is also essential for influencing others and driving positive behavioural change. Emphasising a person’s strengths will have more of a positive impact on their behaviour and learning than focusing on what they’ve done wrong.

In fact, the old adage is wrong: we mostly don’t learn from our mistakes. We learn from trying something new and being praised for it.

More carrot, less stick

In the face of constant negative feedback, people may become so anxious and intent on avoiding whatever it is they’re not supposed to do that they wind up doing it.

I know a highly intelligent and successful law firm partner whose presentation coach jumped on her every time she said “um”.

When she got up to give a very important address, she had one mantra in mind: don’t say “um”.

You can guess what happened – there was about one “um” for every three words. This doesn’t mean you can’t tell someone that you want them to stop or change a certain behaviour, or that you feel it would be in their best interest to do so.

But you do need to set them up for success and then praise them when they try something different, or when they do what you suggest.

It would have been much better if the coach or a colleague had encouraged her to practice using pauses instead of the word “um” when talking in situations that didn’t make her nervous, and then praised her when she made progress.

How does this work? Behaviour is initiated through the reward centres of the brain, which govern emotion, trust and relationship.

Dopamine, sometimes called the “feel-good” neurochemical, and oxytocin (the relationship and trust chemical), drive decisions by linking an experience to a sense of reward and wellbeing. (Dopamine also plays a major role in good brain function and short-term memory.)

Dopamine is behind addiction – we get a neurochemical hit from alcohol, narcotics, gambling or even from overwork. The brain can become habituated to the effects and need more and more to get the same reaction.

Even when the habit is no longer pleasurable, the craving remains. Praise and relationship statements form an equally strong dopamine reaction.

The brain wants more and more of the stuff. Your colleagues and clients can, sometimes unconsciously, seek you out and look for opportunities to work with you in order to get the “dope”.

But the body reacts differently to praise than to cocaine or alcohol because we are genetically geared to receive it in large quantities.

In a hunter-gatherer band, people made a point of showing respect and admiration for each other and what they did. I have seen this in villages in East Africa and in Bali, before it became a suburb of Australia.

People constantly reaffirmed relationships, which were vital to the survival of the band. These displays not only strengthen bonds, they reinforce the vitality and health of the individuals.

Praise is so essential that our system rewards us with dopamine when we give it, as well as receive it. Yet, of all the topics my business partner Bob Murray and I teach, praise is the one that almost always gets kickback at first.

I once made a list of all the objections, both to giving and receiving it, and I ran out of space on a page. The objections are equally strong in every city we work in.

Here are some, along with what I would like to say (though I am not usually that blunt):

  • “I won’t be seen as sincere” (that’s your assumption, and they probably get the benefit anyway)
  • “They don’t mean it” (how do you know?)
  • “People will get a swollen head” (you mean feel good about themselves? Heaven forbid!)
  • “We shouldn’t need outside affirmation” (but we do)
  • “A senior person will think I’m sucking up” (leaders tend to get less direct praise and need all the dopamine they can get)
  • “You shouldn’t praise people for just doing their job” (do you want them to stop?)
  • “Clients don’t care what I think of them” (their reward system would disagree)
  • “There are no words to praise in the Cantonese language” (my Cantonese speaking associates assured me this is not the case)
  • “It makes me feel uncomfortable” (get used to it)
  • “It will be seen as harassment” (why not discuss and agree group norms)
  • “It’s used in the sandwich.” (true, if the only time you hear praise is when the bad stuff is next)

And my favourite, from a senior executive: “My secretary would faint. It’s never happened before.”

I suspect that the energetic discussion and resistance are due to the fact, as studies have shown, that most lawyers never got much praise growing up, wherever that was, and we feel ashamed for wanting it.

We are looking for permission and at the same time fear it. The answer to all the above, is to use praise well and instil a culture of praise. Role-model it as leaders. Ask for it. Receive it graciously, without dismissing the praiser’s opinion.

Here’s a quick guide to what Bob and I call potent praise. Potent praise involves regularly using all of the three kinds:

  • What: for achievements. These should be acknowledged, but not the sole source of affirmation. Otherwise people will get discouraged. They may avoid learning new things and experimenting. The research shows that most lawyers were only praised for achievement, which is why the profession historically avoids innovation.
  • How: for the way they do something, for effort, or trying something new.
  • Who: affirming a present or potential relationship – “I’m glad to see you here”, or “I really enjoy working with you”. ‘What’ and ‘how’ praise needs to be specific.

A relationship statement can be more general. Lawyers are in more danger of burnout than ever before.

The profession is buffeted by change and must adapt. Can you afford to withhold a simple, zero cost way of boosting resilience, enthusiasm and flexibility?

Dr Alicia Fortinberry is principle at Fortinberry Murray