Energizing the Workplace with High Quality Connections

The central role that interpersonal relationships play in organizational effectiveness often is ignored, preventing organizations from living up to their full potential. For example, a 2008 study asked BigLaw associates how their working conditions could improve. The top responses included that partners lacked collegiality, did not express appreciation, and treated them as if they were fungible (Forstenlechner & Lettice, 2008). The 2008 financial crisis exacerbated matters. Those who still have jobs often are reminded of their luck and expendability (Scheiber, 2013). Similar themes surely would emerge in surveys of law firm partners and staff.

Growing Problem of Toxic Workplaces

The associates’ reports of lack of respect and courteousness comport with nation-wide surveys showing that workplace incivility is on the rise (Pearson & Porath, 2005). Incivility is defined as low-intensity behavior that violates workplace norms of mutual respect (Pearson & Porath, 2005). It includes, for example, rudeness, threats, sarcasm, embarrassing or belittling others, speaking in a condescending tone, treating others like they are invisible, taking others for granted, and the like—whether or not the conduct is intentionally malicious (Pearson & Porath, 2005).  Incivility is cotagious and can infect a workplace—especially when leaders model uncivil behavior (Pearson & Porath, 2005).  

Public polls suggest that workplace incivility and bullying are on the rise everywhere (Pearson & Porath, 2005; Kaspercevic, 2014). In a 2002 study of over 2,000 respondents, nearly four out of five reported that lack of respect and courtesy at work is a serious problem; three of five believed it is getting worse (Pearson & Porath, 2005). Another survey reflected that 20% of respondents were targets of incivility at least weekly (Pearson & Porath, 2005).  Specifically in the legal profession, in a 1992 study, 42% of lawyers and 45% of judges believed that civility and professionalism among bar members were significant problems (Daicoff, 2004). In a 2007 survey of Illinois lawyers, 72% of respondents categorized incivility as a serious or moderately serious problem in the profession (Campbell, 2012). A study of over 6,000 lawyers conducted in 2014 found that lawyers did not have a positive view of attorney or judge professionalism (Krieger & Sheldon, 2014).

Legal-industry commentators offer a host of hypotheses to explain the decline in civility. Some point to the break-down of inter-personal relationships caused by huge increases in the number and diverse backgrounds of lawyers (Rhode, 1998; Kronman, 1993; Campbell, 2012). Others blame the rise of email and decline of face-to-face interactions among lawyers (Smith, 2013). Heavy workloads and time pressures also can chip away at collegiality and respect in the workplace (Walsh, Magley, Reeves, Davies-Schrils, Marmet, & Gallus, 2012).

Whatever the reason for the upsurge in incvility, workplace experts warn of the corrosive effect of disrespectful engagement and non-engagement, which depletes employees’ energy and motivation and increases burnout (Dutton, 2003b). Low-quality, toxic connections inflict emotional and physiological damage (Dutton & Heaphy, 2003). They diminish productivity, performance, motivation, creativity, and helping behaviors for those who experience incivility and for those who see or hear about it (Pearson & Porath, 2005; Walsh et al., 2012; Carmeli, 2009).

On the other hand, high quality connections with colleagues bring vitality to the work place and produce a host of individual and organizational benefits (Stephens, Heaphy, & Dutton, 2012; Carmeli, 2009). Aspiring positive law firms will take this issue of incivility and quality connections seriously out of respect for their lawyers and staff and concern for organizational effectiveness.

HQCs as the Antidote to Incivility

In a nutshell, the theory of high quality connections is this: All of the big and little bits of interactions that occur minute-to-minute in organizations profoundly impact people (positively or negatively), and those people determine how well organizations function. The higher the quality of connections, the better individuals and organizations function.

Specifically, high quality connections (“HQCs”) are defined as short-term, positive interactions with another person (Stephens et al., 2012). What distinguishes HQCs from other interactions is their special texture—they are energizing, uplifting, and each participant has a sense that the other is fully engaged and genuinely cares. HQCs can occur in long-term relationships or between new acquaintances. They can occur during lengthy interactions or the many micro-contacts that occur daily (Stephens et al., 2012). HQCs also can occur at an organizational level, such that employees feel that the organization cares about them and values their contributions, which creates a sense of self-worth and deep feeling of connection to the organization (Carmeli, 2009).

Benefits of HQCs at Work

HQCs matter in work organizations for numerous reasons, including that they can support employees’ basic needs for relatedness and competence (elements of SDT, discussed above) and because an organization’s work gets done (or not) through social processes (Stephens et al., 2012; Dutton, 2003b). Research reflects that HQCs have positive effects on individuals, including improving cognitive performance; facilitating the creation of positive meaning in work and learning; enhancing the cardiovascular, neuroendocrine, and immune systems; and facilitating recovery from losses (Stephens et al., 2012). HQCs also contribute to organizational effectiveness by fostering trust and psychological safety and improving organizational processes such as coordination, collaboration, and error detection (Stephens et al., 2012; Dutton & Heaphy, 2003).

Behaviors That Build HQCs

Behaviors that build HQCs include task enabling, trust, play, and respectful engagement (Dutton, 2003a; Stephens et al., 2012). “Task enabling” encompasses strategies that people use to facilitate the success of others (Dutton, 2003a). When someone provides resources to another in the form of, for example, information or emotional support, this cultivates perspective-taking and gratitude, which, in turn, improves the quality of the connection (Stephens et al., 2012). It also triggers a sense of reciprocity such that the person who received assistance feels grateful and encouraged to return the favor (Stephens et al., 2012).

The HQC-building behavior of acting with trust means acting in ways that convey a belief in others’ integrity, dependability, and benevolence (Dutton, 2003a). We convey trust when we allow people to see that we are at risk in some way and expose our vulnerability and interdependence (Dutton, 2003a). Trust can be shown by words, sharing valuable information, self-disclosure, using inclusive language (e.g., “we”), and refraining from demeaning others or accusing them of bad intent. Trust also is conveyed through autonomy-supporting behaviors such as sharing control over decisions and tasks, avoiding check-up behaviors, and not punishing people for errors (Dutton, 2003a).

Trusting behaviors can be challenging for law firm partners and business executives, who are ultimately responsible to clients for ensuring that their matters are handled with a high level of excellence. But, according to workplace experts, trust will only increase with use  (Dutton, 2003a). Partners who show trust to associates may trigger a self-fulfilling cycle in which those who have been shown trust feel motivated to act trustworthy (Dutton, 2003a).

Play also helps build HQCs. Play can reduce stress and also enables people to learn more and different things about each other than is likely to occur during a work or non-play mode (Stephens et al., 2012). Playfulness can break down hierarchy and a sense of bureaucracy and can help build rapport among colleagues and with clients (Stephens et al., 2012).

The final behavior, engaging respectfully, includes conveying presence, being genuine, and communicating affirmation (Dutton, 2003a). Respectful behaviors show esteem, dignity, and care (Stephens et al., 2012). Research on civility, dignity, and respect reflect that everyday behaviors—even micro-behaviors—communicate how one person values another (Stephens et al., 2012). This includes non-verbal behaviors. More than 50% of the impact of a message is conveyed from body movement and 38% derives from tone of voice; only 7% of the message is delivered through words (Dutton, 2003a). People make rapid judgments about the meaning of non-verbal behaviors and whether to try to connect or withdraw (Stephens et al., 2012).

Focusing Lawyers on Respectful Engagement

Respectful engagement may be the HQC pathway about which lawyers must be particularly vigilant. Lawyers as a group are highly skeptical. Dr. Larry Richard (2002), a consultant with an expertise in lawyer personality, has profiled over 1,000 lawyers. He found that, in large firms, the trait of “skepticism” is consistently the highest scoring trait among lawyers. They average around the 90th percentile compared to the general public’s average at the 50th percentile. Those with high skepticism scores tend to be cynical, judgmental, questioning, argumentative, and somewhat self-protective (Richard, 2002).

Further, the lawyers that Richard (2002) studied had an average “sociability” score of 12.8% (compared to the public’s average score of 50%). Sociability is defined as a desire to interact with people, especially a comfort level in initiating new, intimate connections. Low scorers are less inclined to enjoy interacting with others and may prefer to spend more time dealing with information and the intellect (Richard, 2002).

In Richard’s (2002) study, lawyers also scored high (71st percentile) in “urgency,” which is characterized by impatience, a need to get things done, and a sense of immediacy. Related to urgency is research showing that time-pressures undermine the critical relationship skill of empathy—even for naturally empathetic individuals (Schwartz & Sharpe, 2011). For example, one study showed that only 10% of seminarians asked to rush to their next meeting stopped to help a man slumped over in an alley on their route (Schwartz & Sharpe, 2011). If seminarians tend to lose their empathy under time-pressures, lawyers surely do.

On the trait of “autonomy,” lawyers scored in the 89th percentile compared to the general public’s average score in the 50th percentile (Richard, 2002). Based on the survey’s definition, this means that lawyers tend to resist being managed, dislike being told what to do, and value their independence (Richard, 2002).

The profile that the research paints of a skeptical, impatient, unsociable person who does not want to be bossed suggests that HQCs are a big challenge in law firms. Lawyers wanting to cultivate HQCs may need to be especially mindful about taking time to make affirmative efforts to interact with office-mates and do so respectfully and empathetically. Face-to-face interactions are the best way to nurture connections (Medland, 2008). But, of course, the interaction must convey respect. Something as seemingly so simple as conveying presence by looking up from the computer, ceasing to read emails or type, and greeting colleagues with a smile when they walk into one’s office can be rare in busy law firms.

The extensive use of email also is an obstacle to HQCs in law firms. As an initial matter, email often substitutes for in-person conversations, resulting in declining quality and quantity of those higher-quality interactions (Medland, 2008). Additionally, email often is the hotbed of toxic interactions in law firms. This likely is due in part to a diminished awareness of the person on the other end of the email. Social presence theory focuses on how a communication medium facilitates the level of awareness of the other person during an interaction, which impacts levels of warmth and sensitivity that are conveyed (Medland, 2008). Research shows that email depersonalizes human interactions, making sarcasm, name-calling, and sniping more likely (Medland, 2008). Although the medium is less personal, email still can significantly influence the quality of relationships (Medland, 2008).

The above suggests that due, for example, to certain common personality traits and high-pressure work environments, committing to HQCs at work may be particularly challenging for lawyers. But, given their importance to individual and organizational wellness, aspiring positive law firms will make HQCs a priority.


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