Guest blog: Motivate your lawyers working remotely during lockdown and beyond

Research has shown what motivates people to behave in certain ways. What can law firm leaders learn from the results to keep their lawyers and staff motivated under lockdown and beyond? Katherine Thomas investigates.

Katherine Thomas spent almost 20 years in business development roles in English law firms before setting up Free Range Lawyers, which connects working remotely with law firms and law companies flexing their resource. Katherine is also consultant with Law Consultancy Network, managing director of Katherine Thomas Consulting and teaching fellow on the College of Law Australia’s first Master of Legal Business course

With our people operating under more pressure and uncertainty than ever before, and many lawyers working remotely and in circumstances that are new to them, law firm leaders are considering what they can do to maintain motivation, leading to high levels of productivity, creativity and commitment.

In this article, I set-out the basic principles of motivation, and then look at these principles in the current context of a workforce operating remotely, in sub-optimal and disrupted circumstances.

What is motivation?

The word motivation is derived from the Latin word movere (induces to move). Definitions include “enthusiasm for doing something”, “the need or reason for doing something” and “the willingness to do something”. This makes it clear that motivation is not simply a feeling; it is a feeling that leads to action. It triggers behaviour and keeps it on course.

Motivation cannot be measured or directly observed. What motivates one individual doesn’t motivate another, and the results of motivation differ from person to person. No wonder many leaders see motivation as a minefield and are unsure where to start!

A good place to start is to appreciate that there are broadly two kinds of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic motivation is created by forces external to the individual and involves either obtaining rewards or avoiding punishment or penalty. Many of us know it as the ‘carrot and stick’ approach. Leaders use this approach to provide incentives or invoke punishments, with the goal of driving behavior and motivating employees to take specific actions – for example, be productive at work. The 18th century polymath Jeremy Bentham wrote, “Pain and pleasure govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think”: when we attempt extrinsic motivation, we are trying to create the anticipation of pleasure through rewards, or the anticipation of pain through penalties. Some rewards are social, such as recognition and praise; some are formal, such as promotions; some are non-monetary perks such as parties or dinners; some are financial. Punishments or penalties include official sanctions such as negative feedback, a demotion or verbal warnings, and informal penalties such as exclusion, derision or ridicule.

Intrinsic motivation exists inside the individual. Action is taken for reward as defined by each person. What each of us defines as a reward is as unique as we are. Examples of intrinsic motivation include gaining knowledge, achieving goals, feeling enjoyment, being challenged, achieving meaningful results, making progress, and providing comfort (moving towards a familiar and unchallenging state).

Understanding the difference is critical to engaging effectively with your people.  Intrinsic motivation requires the leader to tap into each individual’s existing priorities and desires and therefore requires a thoughtful and long-term approach.  For this reason, many organisations default to extrinsic motivation because it appears to be easier to control and to deliver more immediate results.  As we shall see next, each type of motivation has a different effect.

Is extrinsic or intrinsic motivation most effective?

Extrinsic motivation can produce short term-results, but rarely creates long-term change. Research (for example, ‘Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation’ by Roland Bénabou and Jean Tirole in 2003) shows that the results of extrinsic motivation are weak and can even be detrimental in the long term. Excessively focusing on external motivators can even create dependencies which trigger unwelcome behaviour. For example, in 2014, a research team at Yale that followed over 11,000 West Point military cadets from application to graduation found that those who entered West Point because of intrinsic motivators were more likely to graduate, and then, in future years, be promoted, than those who entered motivated by extrinsic factors. Even more interestingly, those who were motivated by a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic motivators were still significantly less likely to graduate than those who were solely intrinsically motivated.

While each organisation and individual needs to tailor their approach to suit their own circumstances, research indicates that extrinsic motivation is a suitable tool to achieve short-term, specific goals, whereas intrinsic motivation is more effective for long-term achievement.

Are rewards or penalties the most effective form of extrinsic motivation?

Again, circumstances differ, but the clear indication is that rewards are most effective at motivating action, whereas penalties are most effective at deterring action. This is because to reap rewards we usually need to act, to do something, to make something happen. In contrast, avoiding a negative event usually involves inaction, restraint, staying put.

A study conducted at a New York state hospital in 2011 provides a useful example of rewards and punishments at work. The goal of the study was to increase the frequency of hand washing by medical staff. Initially, warning signs about the consequences of unsanitised hands were placed alongside sanitisation gel dispensers, and cameras were installed to monitor every sink: hand-washing rates remained low, at only 10%, even though the employees knew they were being recorded. Then, reward was introduced: an electronic board was placed in the hallway of the unit that gave employees instant feedback, saying “Good job!” every time they washed their hands. Compliance rates rose sharply and reached almost 90% within four weeks, a result that was replicated in another division in the hospital.

This suggests that leaders looking to increase motivation towards a particular outcome would be best placed to use rewards to motivate behaviour, whereas those looking to increase motivation for avoidance are best using penalties.

How can law firm leaders motivate their teams under lockdown?

There is no doubt that lockdown is affecting motivation. Almost all aspects of our work and personal life are being disrupted, and most, if not all, of us are working in situations and circumstances we did not choose. In research conducted for their 2015 book Primed to Perform, Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor found that employees who work remotely and have a choice about where they work have a total motivation score of around 35, whereas employees who work remotely and don’t have a choice about it score 18 on average.

How can leaders apply these principles to maximise motivation among their people working remotely in a crisis? Below are my three tips.

1. Be clear about your organisation’s purpose

Intrinsic motivation in the workplace increases when an individual’s values align with not only their work, but also the ultimate purpose of the organisation they are working in. For example, PWC’s consulting arm, Strategy&, undertook some research into the link between purpose, motivation and performance, and found that at companies with a clearly articulated purpose, 63% of employees felt motivated, compared to only 31% at companies without that level of clarity. More than 90% of the companies with clarity on purpose delivered overall value above their industry average. The link between purpose, motivation and performance is clear, even more so in a remote working environment, where autonomy and isolation make individuals’ intrinsic motivation even more important to their effectiveness. Purpose provides a steadying influence in an otherwise volatile world. Now, more than ever, leaders must articulate and live their organisation’s purpose.

2. Let your people focus on problems that matter to them

Ask colleagues what concerns them, what they’d like to improve and what they’d love a chance to work on – then match individuals to issues that matter to them. Assemble cross-disciplinary teams to tackle these issues and questions, and then leave the teams to get on with it. This provides opportunities for individuals to align their values and interests to the work they do, creating intrinsic motivation that will drive far more creativity and collaboration than a management-mandated away-day. McGregor and Doshi, in their studies, found that ‘play’ – the opportunity to bounce around ideas and experiment – most boosts motivation to perform.

3. Prioritise goals over process

Many organisations, especially those not familiar with remote working, will emphasise adherence to rules and processes to ensure compliance and performance. However, this fits into the category of motivation by penalty, which we know only works as a short-term strategy, and tends to lead to inaction rather than action. Emphasising the achievement of goals within a loose framework, rather than enforcing a rule-based system is more effective at tapping into intrinsic motivation and therefore creating long-term results. For example, agreeing as a project team that ‘we will achieve X result by Y date’ rather than ‘we will have a check-in meeting every day at 9am’. By focusing on achieving results that align with individual’s intrinsic motivation rather than hitting process targets that are responded to with praise or criticism, leaders can tap into longer-term, intrinsic motivation. There is evidence that this approach is particularly effective in remote-working teams. A 2006 study of masters students from business programs in universities around the world found that less effective virtual teams couldn’t move beyond procedure or rule-setting (for example, how quickly an email needs to be answered or how regularly we will all meet). However, high-performing virtual teams demonstrated an ability to move beyond procedures to orientate themselves around achieving particular tasks and goals. This suggests that a focus on goals at the expense of rules is particularly relevant in a remote working environment.

Motivation is an imperfect, subjective topic at the best of times. Add to that the uncertainty and unfamiliarity of current working circumstances, and you’d be forgiven for assuming it is too hot to handle. However, motivation is more important now than ever, and the steps leaders take to inspire their people now will influence their organisation for years to come.