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March 01, 2022 The Marketing Issue

Practice Management Advice: Elite Teams Chase Not the Star, but the Right Atmosphere

John D. Bowers

Unless your law practice includes only you—no support whatsoever—your firm has at least one team. From the beginning of time, humans have not trained, studied, fought or pushed themselves ever harder with deep-seated ambition to surround themselves with mediocre, apathetic teammates.

What makes the most successful teams great? Resisting a series of trite sports metaphors, a basketball squad fielding five Michael Jordans would repeatedly whip the dominant Chicago Bulls staffed by Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and teammates from the 1990s. Right?

Leaders of teams, whether coaches, managing partners or firm administrators, may believe that, in order to have an elite team, they simply need to field better players—have more of the best and brightest people. A litigation boutique manned by 100 David Boieses may lose the occasional case but would be practically unbeatable. Right? It seems logical, but the reality might be quite the opposite.

Google’s Project Aristotle studied 180 of the company’s teams in excess of 12 months and found that, while talent is an important variable, the core of any successful team is not “who” is on the team but “how” the teammates interact. Don’t miss the opportunity there: While you can’t make your teammates innately smarter or work more than 24 hours a day, you absolutely can affect the environment of the team, particularly regarding how those members work together.

Psychological Safety

Before you dismiss psychological safety as fluffy do-goodery, there are more than 50 years of scientific evidence supporting the concept. Though psychological safety includes trust as a component, it is a shared belief among teammates that their environment encourages them to take interpersonal risks, offer up ideas and be vulnerable without punishment or judgment. Highly successful teams that enjoy measurable psychological safety consistently exhibit two measurable behaviors.

The first such behavior is conversational turn-taking, in which every member of the team participates in each conversation for roughly the same proportion of time. We can all agree that teams that consistently defer decisions large and small to even a well-intentioned benign dictator do not require any members. Just like bringing people to a pitch meeting who have no role at all, teams must be made up of members who have a role and are empowered to offer and reject ideas freely. Taken in the negative, the implication is that team members who continuously refuse to participate in group conversation should be excluded in order to make the given team more effective.

The second behavior that highly successful teams exhibit is ostentatious listening. Picture your team’s last Zoom meeting and recall the participants whose cameras were off or the in-person meeting where devices were visible. Ostentatious listening summarizes what someone else is saying in combination with verbal or physical confirmation that they are being heard. It’s a demonstration that what team members say carries value in the conversation. Though technology has revolutionized the way we communicate, ostentatious listening may be even more essential to successful teams.

How Are We Doing?

Leaders have a sneaking suspicion right about now that their team is grossly lacking in either or both behaviors. After all, how does a leader manage varieties of personality differences— which make the team stronger—while still being productive? “If they would only stop grandstanding” or “If they would simply contribute” statements are quickly followed by diagnoses of underlying personalities that carry the weight of all blame. No matter how justified these arguments may be, they simply can no longer be accepted as the end of the conversation.

Not sure if your team exhibits a strong level of psychological safety? Here are a few ideas to help you gauge that level:

  • At the next team meeting, prepare at least one talking point where you are absolutely certain that each member of the team has some idea to offer. Then, put your phone away and ignore texts, emails and calls—yes, for the whole meeting. Observe who participates and who doesn’t. Most importantly, allow for juicy, overflowing pregnant pauses that you may be tempted to fill.
  • If you are the owner, leader or managing partner, ask a team member whom you trust to run a meeting when you aren’t present. Have them report back, not only on decisions made and who took the leadership role in the meeting, but whether the team demonstrated either ostentatious listening or conversational turn-taking.
  • Assess how safe your teammates feel. Instead of guessing the feelings of others—which ought to be profoundly problematic—you should simply ask them. Here are a few queries to take the temperature of your team’s collective psychological safety:
  • Do teammates have the shelter to experience failure?
  • Are teammates willing to say that which they know is unpopular?
  • How acceptable is it for each person to give feedback?
  • Does every teammate welcome receiving feedback?

The Personality of the Product

Products in the legal industry are people; deeply committed, passionate and courageous advocates for their clients. Our firm names scream the proof.

Human nature lends itself to relationships. There is nothing innately wrong with a need for connection: many of our communities depend on selfless contributions for the greater good. Anyone who has been a member of a highly successful team witnessed that the sacrifice of personal preferences for the benefit of the organization is critically important to improving the performance of the team.

All too often, however, leaders play upon yearning for connection before psychological safety exists. Who is willing to sacrifice, in large or small ways, for a team where their contributions are simply not heard or their presence is not necessary? Such exploitation flushes innovation that potentially might also lift the team. Leaders must get busy instilling and then strengthening psychological safety before their members find another team.

John D. Bowers

Executive Director

John D. Bowers serves on the Education Committee of the Middle Tennessee Association of Legal Administrators, as Executive Director of the Tennessee Intellectual Property Law Association and is a former editor-in-chief of Law Practice and continues to serve on its Editorial Board. [email protected]