In “Making the Case for Love in Your Law Firm,” Christy Cassisa explained the concept of “companionate love” in the workplace — it’s a type of emotional culture in which relationships are based on warmth, caring and connection. Research shows it is good for employers, employees and clients. Two years into the pandemic, it’s a good time to review her practical list of how-tos for creating a caring emotional culture for your firm.
Transforming Your Firm’s Emotional Culture
Too many law offices have emotional cultures of fear, anger, passive aggression or intense competitiveness. Wouldn’t it be great if we could build a culture of companionate love instead? In such a culture, colleagues would treat each other with caring, compassion and affection — and learn to accept their mutual humanity as a strength.
The odds of making this meaningful change at the organizational level may seem insurmountable. But you can take steps to change your own behavior, or “be the change” you wish to see.
A More Caring Culture Starts With You
Here are 10 strategies to start you on the road to a culture of caring, compassion and affection in your work life. Some are challenging and some will conflict with your legal training — and maybe even your personal upbringing. Science backs every single one.
1. Understand biology. Learning about the stress reactivity pathway and the fight-flight-freeze response can help you remember that we are just being humans. From day one in law school we are conditioned to believe competition and fear are inevitable, but those states trigger basic survival strategies that can actually lead to inferior performance. Understanding it is the first step in managing this biological programming.
2. Accept evolution. Our species is not only based on “survival of the fittest” but also on “survival of the social.” Humans are wired to seek social community. However, we are also wired to share emotions, and this means what I feel will be transmitted to you, whether you or I want it or not. The fact that we have social brains means that we must learn to be aware of what we are feeling to better control what we are sharing.
3. Increase self-awareness. This one is tricky for those who are low in emotional intelligence. But self-awareness can be cultivated and improved. It’s a challenge — looking oneself in the mirror and really seeing what is there. But we can develop self-awareness with conscious effort and practice. Take a personality or emotional intelligence assessment. Practice reflection and journaling. Ask respected colleagues what they see. Open your ears and mind to receiving what is there to be learned.
4. Practice mindfulness. This is the practice of becoming aware of both the internal landscape of your experience (automatic habits, recurrent thought patterns, emotional reactivity) as well as the external environment and stimuli. You might take a conscious breath every time you leave your office, meditate for 10 minutes before launching into your day, eat a meal mindfully, or take a five-minute mindful walk. By inserting small steps like these into your day, you can experience immense improvements in your awareness, resilience and state of mind.
5. Choose responses. Once you’ve become a bit more self-aware, identify your own habitual reactions. For example, becoming defensive when that client calls incessantly, feeling panic when facing an inbox overflowing with emails, hiding in the bathroom when you have an upcoming deposition, competing with colleagues in meetings or eating a cookie at 3 p.m. Pick one habitual response and work on noticing the impulse right when it arises. Then before acting, take 10 deep breaths. This allows the brain to re-engage so you can choose your response.
6. Create new habits. Sometimes you have to make a conscious effort to behave in new ways. Choose one behavior that you’d like to see more of from yourself and practice it for one month. Perhaps it’s learning to compliment your significant other. Or exercising in the morning. Eating healthier. Taking time for yourself. The important point here is to be intentional and construct a plan to integrate these behaviors into your life and make them permanent. For example, set an alert on your phone to remind you to compliment your partner. Calendar those exercise appointments. Schedule a day off with nothing planned other than curling up with a good book.
7. Practice gratitude. Being grateful for what you already have is good for you. Research shows that those who practice gratitude have stronger immune systems, sleep better, have lower rates of depression and anxiety, are more resilient and are happier overall. Gratitude blocks negative emotions like envy and aggression and promotes altruism and goodwill toward others. Practice gratitude by keeping a journal of what you are thankful for, or just saying a sincere thank you to people in your life. It grows on you.
8. Build social relationships. Yes, I mean at work. (And no, I don’t necessarily mean over drinks.) Taking time to get to know co-workers on a personal level does several constructive things. It builds social community. It helps you better understand and empathize with one another. It makes it more likely that you will take opportunities to help and even lift up one another. So take the time to foster those relationships. Send notes of encouragement and support, celebrate birthdays, offer an ear or a hug of support. These small moments will merge together to form a more caring and satisfying work environment.
9. Practice compassion. Research shows that people who practice compassion are mentally and physically healthier, recover more quickly from disease and even live longer. This one is going to be a tough sell in the law, I know. It’s hard to nail your adversaries to the wall when you have compassion for them and empathy for their case. Putting oneself in another’s shoes and wanting to alleviate their pain seems counterintuitive in our adversarial system of justice. But this begs the very question of what the law is really about. Justice or winning? Fairness or conquest? Being a healing profession or a destructive one? Only you can answer that for yourself.
10. Give yourself a break. You’re human, just like the rest of us. Beating yourself up for making a mistake is actually detrimental to performance. Research shows that practicing self-compassion, or kindness toward yourself, leads to greater motivation to improve after failure. Lawyers in particular can be perfectionists, and that can lead to depression, substance abuse or worse. Try letting that go and see how it changes the way you relate to other humans. You might be surprised.
These 10 steps can go a long way toward changing the culture of burnout, stress and hyper-competitiveness that seems to be ingrained in our profession.
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