Lawyers draft contracts every day. We know the rules. For a valid contract to exist there must be at a minimum an offer and acceptance, as well as consideration. Law firms and in-house legal departments enter into contracts of this type with new employees all the time and hope that the consideration (i.e., financial compensation) will be sufficient to motivate stellar performance. Modern psychology indicates that this is a misplaced hope.
In Social Pressure Is a Better Motivator Than Money, Scott Keller says that we need to move “beyond the ‘market contract’ with employees and [forge] a stronger ‘social contract’.” What’s a market contract? It’s that arrangement I described in the first paragraph; the arrangement that assumes that money (plus a few sanctions/remedies) will motivate performance. What’s a social contract? Keep reading.
Scott Keller cites several examples of social contracts:
- Dan Ariely in Predictably Irrational explains a social contract by first asking you to picture an elaborate meal that your mother has planned and served to you. If after the meal you ask her how much money you owe her, she’ll most likely be taken aback, if not outright offended. On the other hand, if you brought a bottle of wine to dinner, she would be delighted. Why? She wasn’t operating under a market contract that stipulated a fee for services. Rather, she was operating under a social contract with you that allowed the gift of wine as a contribution to the meal.
- In Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner discuss a daycare center that hoped to cut down on late pick ups by imposing a fee on parents who were late. To their surprise, the number of late pick ups multiplied. Why? Once the penalty was introduced, it became a simple business transaction and parents could discharge their responsibilities by paying the fee. Before the fee, they tried harder not to be late because they didn’t want the responsibility (or resulting guilt) of making their childcare providers late. However, introducing a fee changed the arrangement from a social contact to a market contract. And then it was no longer personal — it was just business.
- Keller also provides an example from the world of lawyers. He recounts that when the American Association of Retired Persons asked lawyers to provide services to needy retirees at a deeply discounted price of $30 per hour, they declined. Yet when the AARP later asked them to provide those same services for free, those lawyers agreed. Why? On strictly business terms the market contract of $30 made no sense. However, on a no-fee basis, the lawyers recognized the social good inherent in the now purely social contract.
Now consider how things work in traditional knowledge sharing efforts. After years of watching people nag, cajole or bribe knowledge workers to contribute to the KM system, I’ve come to realize that the people who contribute most do it for reasons other than money or negative pressure. First and foremost, they do it because it satisfies an inner drive to learn, to master a subject and to share. Others share out of a sense of community obligation, ensuring that their colleagues have the information necessary to do good work and stay out of trouble. Still others share knowledge to garner recognition as a good citizen, or perhaps even as a subject matter expert.
So how can social contracts help knowledge management efforts in law firms and legal departments? It’s about giving your colleagues the right opportunities to share knowledge, as well as positive reinforcement so that they continue to do the right thing. Here are some suggestions:
- Be sure to thank each person who makes a contribution. This means more than sending an email that says “Thx.” We’re talking heartfelt, sincere appreciation. It can make all the difference in the world.
- If you can get the head of your firm or legal department to express thanks as well, that’s even better.
- Find opportunities to provide public recognition to people who contribute.
- Collect success stories and share them. This is another form of public recognition. Further, by layering anecdote over anecdote, you can change for the better the conversation within your organization regarding knowledge sharing.
- If appropriate, focus the knowledge sharing within a team in which existing relationships of trust will reinforce sharing behavior.
The key to this is placing knowledge sharing within a social contract. When that happens, it is more likely that your colleagues will engage and it will be harder for them to walk away. If you can ensure that contributors receive appropriate social compensation, you should be able to create a virtuous circle that leads to even better knowledge sharing.
[Hat tip to Neena Abraham for pointing out Scott Keller’s blog post.]
[Photo Credit: Steve Snodgrass]