Do Rational People Work at Your Firm?

We pride ourselves on our ability to make logical decisions. Lawyers take this one step further, we believe we are trained to make dispassionate, logical decisions. In other words, objectively good decisions. So why do we make so many bad decisions? I’d suggest it’s because our decision-making capacity is limited by our knowledge and self-awareness.

Consider some facts:

  • Most of us don’t know what actually makes us happy. Daniel Gilbert’s research indicates that most of us have a hard time predicting how something will affect our sense of well-being.  Because of this, we often make choices that do not make us as happy as we expected. In fact, our poor ability to predict can lead us to make bad choices time and time again.
  • There are folks in this country who routinely vote against their economic best interests in support of positions that have little impact on their lives. Just consider some of the more emotional political debates of recent times.
  • There are law firm leaders who don’t appear to know how to maximize the economic returns of their firm. (Or if they understand it, they seem to lack the will to make the necessary changes.) For more on this issue, see Toby Brown’s post on the role of leverage in law firm profitability.
  • Many lawyers have demonstrated what Jordan Furlong describes as  a “blind side” when it comes to the fundamentals of their business.  Just like they ignore the tectonic shifts around them, they don’t always see how changes in the business of law should be changing the way they operate.
  • Cognitive dissonance helps us screen out information that might challenge our thinking, our approach to life.
  • “We stand where we sit.”  Our place in the hierarchy can have a profound impact on how we approach decision making. Unfortunately, we may not be sitting in the right place to make the best decisions. (See Graham Allison’s analysis of decision making based on the “organizational process model” during the Cuban Missile Crisis.)

These tendencies can be highly problematic for anyone (especially a knowledge manager) who is trying to provide support through nonbillable activities.  How do you convince your colleagues that what you are doing is so valuable that they need to be doing it too? After all, they are convinced that they don’t have the time to do this work.  And, they don’t really see the value in it. In this situation, how do you break through the limits of their knowledge and self-awareness to help them understand what is truly in their best interest?

To be honest, as long as cognitive dissonance is operating, I don’t think you can overcome these decision-making limitations unless you act strategically.  For example, find the people who think differently and then turn them into Trojan Horses:

  • Find the people in your law firm who are wired to consider and value new ideas and information.
  • Introduce them to your knowledge management system and then provide sufficient support so that they get up the learning curve as quickly and painlessly as possible.
  • Follow-up on their feedback.  They are a valuable source of insight and may well be able to help you improve the system.
  • Once they are happy with the KM system, ask them to share it with members of their network.  In this way, people who might not entertain a helpful suggestion from their knowledge manager find themselves lowering their defenses long enough for a person they consider to be a trusted adviser to make a recommendation.  Then you need to follow up with support and a high level of responsiveness to their feedback.
  • Rinse and repeat.

While people may seem hidebound in their unwillingness to even try the tools you’ve designed specifically for their benefit, don’t give up.  Sometimes the key is to find an advocate of such great credibility that they are able to overcome the natural reluctance of their colleagues to devote the time and energy required to try something new. The power of a trusted adviser working her network should never be underestimated.  It is one way to help people rediscover their ability to make rational decisions.

What other ways have you found to help people overcome their natural barriers and make important changes?

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