3 Ways to Kill Work Engagement–And How To Fix Them

By Anne Brafford

Article originally published  here  in Law Practice Magazine, July/August 2018

3 Ways to Kill Work Engagement–And How To Fix Them

Do me a favor please and take a few moments to think about a personal high point for you as a lawyer—a time when you felt awesome and like you were born to do this job. Got one in mind? Good. Now you have a good sense for what “work engagement” feels like—it’s how we feel when we’re at our best. We feel energetic and resilient, a sense of meaning and purpose, pride in our work, and challenged to use a full range of our talents, skills, and abilities.

What’s The Biggest Driver of Engagement?

Given that definition, what would you guess is the biggest contributor to engagement? High salaries? Corner offices? Sure, those things are nice. But they don’t have much to do with engagement. What research shows plays the biggest role is the experience of meaningful work—feeling that our work is important, is a means for personal growth, and contributes to the greater good. It’s these things that really energize us. My new book—Positive Professionals: Creating High-Performing, Profitable Firms Through the Science of Engagement (available on ShopABA/org)—is devoted to teaching law firms more about the impact of engagement and meaningful work. It offers a more detailed look at the tips below and many other science-backed strategies that you can start using right away to boost engagement in your firm.

Why, you may ask, should you and your firm care about meaningfulness and its impact on engagement? First, hopefully, you care about your firm’s lawyers. And meaningfulness and engagement are tied to all kinds of well-being-related outcomes, including physical and psychological health.  Meaningfulness really matters to people. In fact, research shows that, for many, it’s more important than any other aspect of work, including pay, promotion, or working conditions. The second reason you’ll want to learn more about engagement is that piles of research tie it to indicators of business success that your firm cares about, like profitability, productivity, retention of talent, and client satisfaction.

Given the importance of meaningfulness to optimal performance at work, you’d think law firms and other organizations would pay more attention to how it’s created and destroyed every day. Unfortunately, though, this just isn’t on the radar for many organizations. One recent study found that everyday actions by managers easily and regularly destroyed meaningfulness, and, when it happened, it hit people hard. Caught up in the demands of the day, supervising lawyers surely do the same thing—often without even realizing it. Even small actions or inactions can destroy a sense of meaningfulness by making people feel like they don’t matter or their work doesn’t really matter.

Are You An Accidental Toxic Leader?

For example, research on toxic leadership has found that a broad range of fairly common leader behaviors were destructive—including playing favorites, failing to provide information or listen to problems, failing to explain goals or praise good work, not assisting with professional development, and not showing that they cared. These types of behaviors—although they might seem relatively minor—are far from harmless. They destroy a sense of meaningfulness and harm health. They’re linked to depression, anxiety, emotional exhaustion, and burnout. Multiple studies also have linked such behaviors to an increased risk of heart disease, heart attack, and death. Yes, death.

None of us wants to be that person. None of us wants to be a toxic leader, leaving a wake of destruction.  So below is a list of 3 ways you may be killing engagement every day without even knowing it and what you can do to fix it.

1.  Make It Only About The Money

A sense of purpose beyond money is a key contributor to meaningfulness. But the core purpose of many firms appears to be to maximize short-term profits for current equity partners. Critics have argued that this focus has become so intense that it’s eclipsing any other values. But when money is virtually the only symbol of success, lawyers begin using it as a measure of self-worth. This contributes to the demoralization of individual lawyers as well as firm culture.

For example, fascinating psychology and neuroscience research has found that messages about money shift people into “calculative mindsets.” When this mindset is “turned on,” people become more selfish, competitive, and prone to cheating and lying. Turning on the calculative mindset, turns off the kindness mindset that includes empathy and caring for others.  I’ve heard many perplexed law firm leaders invoke Harry Truman’s quote about accomplishing more “if you don’t care who gets credit,” as they wonder why lawyers don’t work together with greater collegiality and team spirit. The research suggests that firms reap what they sow.

The Fix

Articulate and strive to live a purpose that goes beyond making money—including a greater focus on truly caring about the success and well-being of clients, caring about the lives and livelihoods of lawyers and staff, and positively contributing to the communities in which they practice. This doesn’t mean that law firms should ignore profitability. Money is important, but it shouldn’t be the sole measure of value.

What does this “fix” look like in every day practice?  Think about ways your firm can answer these questions in ways that embrace a broader set of values beyond money:

  • What’s talked about most?
  • What’s rewarded?
  • What’s measured?
  • For what are people held accountable?
  • What is discussed in performance reviews?
  • In what does the firm invest?
2. Ignore People

 Many leaders hold the view that no news is good news. They’ll let people know if there’s a problem but otherwise assume people know that all is fine. This hands-off, laissez-faire approach actually is considered an abusive form of non-leadership that fosters work conflict and psychological distress. In essence, laissez-faire leaders ignore people. And being ignored or ostracized at work is toxic. It’s related to health problems, low job satisfaction, and intentions to quit—even more so than being actively mistreated. This research aligns with Gallup’s extensive research on engagement, which has found that ignoring people destroys work engagement and produces the worst outcomes—even worse than focusing on weaknesses.

Being ignored is devastating because it thwarts our basic need to belong. This need includes supportive relationships as well as a sense of belonging or fit with groups we care about. A sizeable body of inter-disciplinary research shows that this need is powerful and pervasive. It can help or harm our cognitive processes, emotional patterns, behaviors, and health and well-being. Low workplace belonging has a strong relationship with depression Feeling excluded can trigger self-defeating behaviors like procrastination, lethargy, and depression. Amazingly, some research even shows that social rejection can make people lose IQ points.

The Fix

We all influence people’s sense of belonging at the firm—but leader behaviors are closely watched and especially impactful.  So, especially for leaders, it’s critically important to pay attention to people. The simple strategy of interacting more and listening more may boost people’s engagement and leaders’ perceived effectiveness. To help people feel a sense of belonging and being cared for, leaders can consider how they can actively enable the success of others—how can they remove obstacles, provide resources, give emotional support, or show gratitude. Forget laissez-faire. Be a transformational leader that helps people be their best.

3. Use a Command and Control Leadership Style

Many firms still are organized under the traditional military-inspired command and control framework. They are hierarchical, rely on the carrot and stick model of motivation, expect compliance, and often micromanage. Controlling leaders in these cultures use directives, threats, incentives, and deadlines while ignoring people’s needs, interests, and feelings. The result is low-quality motivation, performance, and well-being.

Some leaders settle on a controlling style because, frankly, it’s less work—coercing people can be easier than inspiring them. But, while this controlling form of motivation may get compliance in the short-run, it rarely inspires commitment and optimal performance in the long-run. This is so because it harms people’s basic need for autonomy—the need to feel that we are making choices volitionally, that our actions are aligned with our interests and values, that we are respected, and that our unique contribution is valued.

The Fix

Dwight D. Eisenhower defined motivation as “the art of getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it.” This is what effective leaders do when they respect autonomy while still getting things done. To help you do so, research has identified the following strategies to use when making work requests:

  • Use language that doesn’t sound coercive or controlling (“Can you please…?”);
  • Take the other person’s perspective and acknowledge their feelings (“I know it stinks that you’ll need to work over the weekend”);
  • Give rationales for requests (“The client just asked for it and said it was urgent”);
  • Try to figure out what values and interests are important to people and incorporate those into the motivation strategy (“We really need you and your special talent on this. You’ll be working on an important issue for one of the firm’s most important clients.”);
  • Maximize choice (“You’re free to work on it from home. When do you think you can reasonably get me a draft?”).

Other important ways to respect people’s autonomy include to:

  • Avoid micromanaging,
  • Refrain from taking over at the first sign of a wobble,
  • Invite people’s participation in problem-solving and decisions (especially ones that affect them), and
  • Grant people as much control as possible to make decisions about what work they do, how they do it, and when and where they do it.

Invite people to fully contribute their talents by allowing them autonomy to do their work and give them the freedom and flexibility to feel in control of their lives. They’ll repay you by bringing their best selves to work.


Leaders have an especially big impact on engagement and other forms of work-related well-being. But when we get caught up in our busy schedules and go through our days on autopilot, we might unintentionally destroy meaningfulness and engagement of those around us. Many of the strategies for fostering meaningfulness are not hard and do not cost any money. And they are deeply important and worth pursuing. As Daniel Pink argued in his popular book Drive, the economists who drove olds ways of management “are finally realizing that we’re full-fledged human beings, not single-minded economic robots.” The American workforce, he says, is gravitating toward meaningful jobs—driven by “purpose maximizing” and not only “profit maximizing.”