One thing that bugged the tar out of me when I was practicing was how law firms would just throw more money at associates when they complained about how unhappy they were at work. About 75% of the associates I knew just rolled their eyes at this tactic (but took the money), because the stuff they complained about was not compensation. What most associates complained about was working too much, especially on weekends, on boring, shit projects, with assholes. And the relentless pressure of the billable hours treadmill.
That was 20 years ago. Did I miss anything? Because from what I hear now, not much has changed. Except the advent of the Crackberry and really never being able to get away from the office mentally, which has upped the stress level for everyone exponentially.
I thought that bonuses were largely useless because they didn’t address the underlying problems. And I was right, according to Dan Pink in his latest book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. But what I didn’t realize until reading Drive was that bonuses actually increase the dysfunction and toxicity in law firms, and kill motivation among most associates and even partners. Awesome, huh?
Drive is a cool book. Pink’s basic premise is that psychology has known for 40 years that carrot-and-stick motivations, which Pink calls Motivation 2.0, don’t work to motivate workers, except in highly limited situations. (Motivation 1.0 covers survival needs like food and shelter, the bottom rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.)
Bonus Carrots Don’t Work to Improve Performance
The big problem with Motivation 2.0, says Pink, is that it assumes that human beings (yes I am including lawyers in that category) aren’t much different than, say, donkeys: The only way to get humans to do work is to dangle carrots in front of them, or swing a stick at them. Mind you, there are legions of lawyers out there who believe this is true of all humanity.
Yet as far back as the 1950s, psychologists started theorizing and then eventually researching other motivators of human behavior. For example, Frederick Herzberg, a psychologist-turned-management professor, theorized that workers were satisfied in two ways. First, by “hygiene” factors, such as sufficient pay, job security, and working conditions. The presence of hygiene factors didn’t actually motivate performance, but the absence of them bred dissatisfaction.
Once hygiene factors were met, what motivated performance among workers were things like enjoyment of the work itself, genuine (i.e., meaningful) achievement, and personal growth. In fact, a contemporary of Herzberg, W. Edwards Deming, argued that the route to quality work product and continual improvement was intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, motivation.
Extrinsic motivation includes those U.S. corporate staples of bonuses, incentive plans, and forced rankings. Companies have haltingly worked some aspects of intrinsic motivation into their culture, but it’s a patch job. Relaxed dress codes and flexible schedules give some autonomy, don’t make up for all the other shortcomings of Motivation 2.0.
Bonuses Are De-Motivating
One of the most surprising areas of workplace motivation research is how de-motivating those extrinsic rewards can be. Edward Deci, in the 1970s, showed that paying people to complete tasks they were already intrinsically interested in produced poorer performance and less engagement in the task. Whoa. His findings run completely counter to what we would expect.
In fact, lots of other research has found that if-then financial incentives—if you hit this benchmark, then you will get more money—usually result in either the same level of performance, or worse performance. Rarely do incentives improve performance in the long term.
Motivation 2.0 does work, Pink explains, when the path to a solution or a goal is clear, i.e., no significant decisions about how to do the task need to be made. For example, stuffing envelopes.
Yet the work of today’s workforce, from marketing department interns to app developers to, even, yes, lawyers, requires a great deal of choice about how to accomplish tasks. Even the loathsome task of document review requires a smidgen of judgment. Legal research requires a bit more analytic and creative skill, though increasingly that work can be and is outsourced to India. But the core of what lawyers do—apply the law to a client’s situation, recommend a course of action, and see that course of action through—is not anything close to a rote task. It’s highly conceptual work, the antithesis of rote.
So What Works?
What 40 years of research finds actually does work to motivate workers, at all levels, is:
- Giving people autonomy,
- Letting them master their work, and
- Ensuring that they work on projects that have meaning to them.
Yeah, that goes on in law firms every day, doesn’t it? The lack just might account for the insanely high levels of dissatisfaction in the profession. I’m just sayin’.
Next time, we’ll delve into how law firms are not just unsatisfying places to work, but some of what makes them toxic.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who helps unhappy attorneys to see why their job situation is driving them crazy, and helps them figure out what to do about that. Join Jennifer on Sept. 15, 2011 for the Unhappy Lawyers Book Club: Drive edition. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org for details, or to get a discounted sample coaching session.