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The Singapore Law Gazette

The Next Normal: Invest in People Engagement to Energise Your Team

I was managing partner of my former firm in the unsettling early 2000s when we were buffeted by wave after wave of external economic shocks – we were recovering from the tail end of the Asian financial crisis, then came the economic chill after the September 11 attacks, and then SARS hit us which, just like COVID-19, imposed surreal changes in our lives and livelihoods. Our best-laid plans didn’t work and gave way to numerous crisis responses to stay afloat.

Through the upheavals, I noticed that one thing that did not change, the constant we could count on, was the sheer human energy that the team brought to work every day – an incredible sense of cohesion, teamwork, resolve despite the anxiety, a shared sense of purpose and fellowship. I began to see that this human energy was the real source of anything we wanted to and were able to accomplish. Everything we did achieve was simply the result of what this collective human energy chose to direct its mind, heart and soul to. It might have been the worst of times, but it was also more than that, it was the best of times.

We have had this human spirit since we set up the firm in 1994. But back then, I did not have the knowledge, words or the frameworks to name, capture and bottle that incredible human energy. What I did know instinctively was that this human energy comes from within us, and that it can be ignited as much as it can be depleted. I now know this human energy is called “engagement” in organisational language.

Igniting Human Energy and Engagement at Work

At its simplest, engagement is about creating working environments so that we perform at our best, not just because we have to but because we want to.

Engagement is the condition precedent which must be satisfied so that human energy is ignited to fuel sustainably great performance. When human energy is ignited, we move into an energetic field of possibilities, where powerful traits such as resolve, resilience, optimism, agility, creativity and a sense of deep human connection occur, resulting in leadership, innovation, and sustainable high performance.

Engage All Our Human Dimensions

The more I read about what it takes to create engagement in the workplace, the more I believe that “being human” is our best built-in resource for knowing what is needed for us to feel engaged and fulfilled. I use this visual of the Human Dimensions1In Stephen R Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, the author refers to the importance of renewing the human dimensions – Physical, Mental, Social/Emotional, and Spiritual – as the 7th habit, and states that “sound motivation and organisation theory embrace these four dimensions or motivations”. This wheel of Human Dimensions is adapted from Covey’s “four dimensions of renewal”. as a “map” for thinking about our different human dimensions and for organising information for engagement in each of these dimensions:

Summarised simply, people have intrinsic human needs or dimensions, which are (1) Physical (the need to sustain ourselves); its related dimension (2) Financial (the means to sustain ourselves); (3) Intellectual (the need for mastery); (4) Emotional (the need for psychological security); and (5) Purpose (the need for meaning in life).2Loosely drawn from “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working/The four forgotten needs that energise great performance”, Tony Schwartz. The author states that “(h)uman beings … need to meet four energy needs to operate at their best : physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.”

When we map our human dimensions over what typically happens at work, we see that most organisations focus on the Physical, Financial and Intellectual dimensions, and that the Emotional and Purpose dimensions are neglected or under-served. In other words, the way we work is not fully congruent with who we naturally are as whole human beings.

How did this happen? It could be because the way we work is largely based on an economic theory from the 18th century. Since the time of the first Industrial Revolution, economic activities have focused on efficient production and output, generated by workers as units of labour in process-driven operations, for which the primary exchange between organisation and workers was money for labour. These assembly-line organisations focused primarily on their Physical, Financial, and Intellectual assets. Workers’ emotional needs and the need for meaningful work were simply not factors in this economic model.

We still see this today in the 21st century, in the way educational institutions and organisations focus their investments mainly in our physical, financial and intellectual capabilities. And yet, no matter how big or small organisations (including law firms) are, they are made up of individual human beings who yearn for all their human dimensions and needs to be fulfilled.

Without also engaging the Emotional and Purpose dimensions, we limit the full potential of human energy and ingenuity that is available only when we engage ourselves as whole human beings. “It’s only when employers encourage and support us in meeting these needs that we can cultivate the energy, engagement, focus, creativity, and passion that fuel great performance.”3Quote from Tony Schwartz, see endnote 3.

Looking at this another way, our Emotional and Purpose dimensions are hitherto untapped resources which we can engage, so that we optimise our full human potential in service of the evolution and transformation of lawyers, law firms and the legal profession.

Human Engagement at Work

As indicated earlier, highly engaged workplaces correlate to high-performance workplaces.

Gallup describes engaged employees as “highly involved in and enthusiastic about their work and the workplace. They are psychological “owners”, drive performance and innovation, and move the organisation forward.”4“State of the Global Workplace”, Gallup 2017.

The positive energy of enough individuals in the organisation can become the energy of the organisation. High engagement workplaces are high performance workplaces that have a measurable impact on the bottom line. For example, Gallup reports that highly engaged workplaces can claim 21 per cent higher profitability that those with lower engagement. In a study with professional service firms, the Hay Group found that offices with engaged employees were up to 43 per cent more productive.

Conversely, when organisations fail to cultivate positive engagement in people, this vital resource of human energy is not ignited, or worse, is depleted at work.5See White Paper on “Human Energy in Organisations” by Spreitzer, Chak and Quinn, summarised by P Malllinckrodt, Stephen M Ross School of Business, University of Michigan.

Employee Engagement – We Can Do Better

  • Gallup’s latest report on “State of the Global Workplace” (2017) reveals that just 23 per cent of the workforce in Singapore feel “engaged” at work. Sixty-nine per cent of the workforce is “not engaged”. This means that 69 per cent of the workforce in Singapore put in their time at work but not their energy or passion. Eight per cent of the workforce is reported to be “actively disengaged” – they aren’t just unhappy at work, they are resentful and potentially undermine what their engaged co-workers accomplish.
  • In 2014, the then President of the Law Society, Mr Lok Vi Ming SC, revealed that three out of four lawyers had left the legal profession within their first 10 years of practice.6Opening of the Legal Year 2014, Address by the President of the Law Society, Mr Lok Vi Ming SC at para 11.
  • In 2016, the Honourable Chief Justice Menon, referring to Mr Lok SC’s observations as a “hollowing out phenomenon”, noted in his address at a mass call that “there is no one explanation for this. But it is obvious that the long hours and great stresses placed on young lawyers daily contribute significantly to this migration from the law.”7Admission of Advocates & Solicitors, Friday 26 August 2016, Address by the Chief Justice https://www.supremecourt.gov.sg/Data/Editor/Documents/CJ%20Mass%20Call%20Speech%202016%20on%2026%20August%202016%20(Final).pdf
  • The report of the Young Lawyers’ Task Force in December 2017 concluded that “law firms and senior members of the bar should not merely view young lawyers as economic vectors but as professionals to be nurtured and developed in the best traditions of the Bar”. It was reported that while they accept that long hours and hard work are par for the course in legal practice, “young lawyers voiced their concerns with “unreasonable” demands or “avoidable” stresses from bosses such as being given instructions late at night and being expected to turn around work by morning, or being expected to stay back after office hours or come in over the weekends “when there may be no pressing need”.”8“Rookie lawyers want to be more than “source of labour” for bosses”, https://todayonline/singapore/rookie-lawyers-want-be-more-source-labour-bosses 28 December 2017.

Apart from these reports, it would be fair to say that many of us have had conversations with lawyers experiencing various levels of distress about work. Lawyers of all seniorities speak privately of their feelings of stress, being “always on”, the tyranny of billing targets, and finding it difficult to see the meaning in their work beyond meeting the firm’s financial metrics. These certainly sound like energy-depleting conditions which can hardly be sustainable or healthy for the lawyers and their firms.

What Can Partners and Team Leaders Do?

There are of course different reasons why lawyers do or do not feel engaged at work. However, law firms can create more conducive conditions to better engage their lawyers and ignite the power of human energy at work. This requires paying attention to all aspects of the Human Dimensions. In this article, I want to share two initiatives for energising the Emotional dimension at work.

Emotional Dimension – Address Work Stress

Stress depletes energy.9“Human Energy in Organisations”, ibid. Consider applying the principles of the UK’s Mindful Business Charter,10See the MBC in full here https://mindfulbusinesscharter.com; and the current list of client and law firm signatories https://mindfulbusinesscharter.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/MBC-signatories.pdf (MBC) which are aimed at removing unnecessary stress in the work lives of lawyers and their clients through behavioural change.

The MBC sets out best-practice principles to reduce avoidable stress in ways of working within the legal sector, both in practice and in-house. It recognises that while lawyers and in-house counsel thrive on working hard, some of the stress that is there is unnecessary. Because stress causes clients and lawyers to work less productively and is not good for health, removing unnecessary stress will enable people to work more effectively and be happier and healthier.11The Mindful Business Charter states that “(a)ll research shows that stress and resultant mental health concerns are an increasing problem within the (legal) sector”.

The MBC encourages mindful working practices based on communication, respect and consideration. Its signatories commit to four principles (each of which has detailed behaviours supporting the principle), namely:

  1. openness and respect – for example, discussing upfront with colleagues, clients and contacts on their preferred method of communication.
  2. smart meetings and e-mails – for example, not copying people into e-mails that they don’t need to receive.
  3. respecting rest periods – giving consideration to the need to “switch off”, for example, considering sending pre-timed e-mails so e-mails are not received late at night and at weekends.
  4. mindful delegation – for example, when instructing on a task, by negotiating rather than imposing a deadline.

The MBC recognises that there will be times when long hours and stress cannot be avoided, “but this isn’t always the case, and we want it to become the exception rather than the rule”.

Leaders can use the MBC principles with your teams to explore how the team wants to work together effectively while respecting boundaries between work time and personal time for all, especially if people are working from home.

Emotional Dimension – Make it Safe for People to Speak Up

Bring more energy to teams by creating conditions in which people feel “(1) included; (2) safe to learn; (3) safe to contribute; (4) safe to challenge the status quo, all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalised or punished in some way”.12“The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation” Timothy R Clark, 2019 This is called psychological safety. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson13https://www.jstor.org/stable/2666999 defines psychological safety as “a team climate of interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves”. Quite apart from the opportunity to catch risks when people feel confident about raising nagging doubts, psychological safety boosts employee engagement and team innovation.”14Psychological Safety, https://en.m. wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_safety

In 2016, Google released the results of its four-year research (codenamed Project Aristotle) on what makes some of its teams effective and others not. The study found that teammates in “good” teams were able to raise their collective intelligence by the way they treated one another, whereas the wrong group norms could limit a team even if the individual team members were smart.

Specifically, a team does well when (i) everyone gets a chance to speak (as opposed to one person or a small group speaking all the time), and (ii) the team feels comfortable sharing personal stories and emotions and is sensitive to how people in the group are feeling. One researcher said their findings made sense to her, because she had been on teams that left her feeling totally exhausted, and on others where she got so much energy from the group.15See Julia Rozovsky quote in “What Google Learned from its Quest to build the Perfect Team” by Charles Duhigg, New York Times, 25 Feb 2016 The Google researchers found that individuals on teams with higher psychological safety “are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives”.16See “Guide: Understand Team Effectiveness” https://rework.withgoogle.com/guides

Edmondson suggests some things team members can do to foster team psychological safety:

  • frame work as a learning problem, not an execution problem;
  • acknowledge one’s own fallibility;
  • model curiosity and ask lots of questions.17“Building a psychologically safe workplace” Amy Edmondson, TEDxHGSE on YouTube https://youtu.be/LhoLuui9gX8

“Be Brave”

I realise that lawyers, especially leaders, have their hands full focusing on physical facilities, finances and work product in the first three Human Dimensions, and may find that engaging the Emotional and Purpose dimensions feels new and unfamiliar. Yet to be effective in an environment of rapid change and uncertainty, we need be willing to look beyond convention, and ask ourselves if we can afford to ignore the full potential of human energy that comes from engaging with each other as whole human beings. As the MBC states, “as a legal community we have a responsibility to try [to] do things differently. Be Brave.

Susan de Silva will be conducting a webinar on “Practice Well and the Mindful Business Charter” on 20 August 2020, from 4-6pm. Registration Link: https://www.eventnook.com/event/u70928/home

Endnotes   [ + ]

1.In Stephen R Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, the author refers to the importance of renewing the human dimensions – Physical, Mental, Social/Emotional, and Spiritual – as the 7th habit, and states that “sound motivation and organisation theory embrace these four dimensions or motivations”. This wheel of Human Dimensions is adapted from Covey’s “four dimensions of renewal”.
2.Loosely drawn from “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working/The four forgotten needs that energise great performance”, Tony Schwartz. The author states that “(h)uman beings … need to meet four energy needs to operate at their best : physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.”
3.Quote from Tony Schwartz, see endnote 3.
4.“State of the Global Workplace”, Gallup 2017.
5.See White Paper on “Human Energy in Organisations” by Spreitzer, Chak and Quinn, summarised by P Malllinckrodt, Stephen M Ross School of Business, University of Michigan.
6.Opening of the Legal Year 2014, Address by the President of the Law Society, Mr Lok Vi Ming SC at para 11.
7.Admission of Advocates & Solicitors, Friday 26 August 2016, Address by the Chief Justice https://www.supremecourt.gov.sg/Data/Editor/Documents/CJ%20Mass%20Call%20Speech%202016%20on%2026%20August%202016%20(Final).pdf
8.“Rookie lawyers want to be more than “source of labour” for bosses”, https://todayonline/singapore/rookie-lawyers-want-be-more-source-labour-bosses 28 December 2017.
9.“Human Energy in Organisations”, ibid.
10.See the MBC in full here https://mindfulbusinesscharter.com; and the current list of client and law firm signatories https://mindfulbusinesscharter.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/MBC-signatories.pdf
11.The Mindful Business Charter states that “(a)ll research shows that stress and resultant mental health concerns are an increasing problem within the (legal) sector”.
12.“The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation” Timothy R Clark, 2019
13.https://www.jstor.org/stable/2666999
14.Psychological Safety, https://en.m. wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_safety
15.See Julia Rozovsky quote in “What Google Learned from its Quest to build the Perfect Team” by Charles Duhigg, New York Times, 25 Feb 2016
16.See “Guide: Understand Team Effectiveness” https://rework.withgoogle.com/guides
17.“Building a psychologically safe workplace” Amy Edmondson, TEDxHGSE on YouTube https://youtu.be/LhoLuui9gX8

Susan de Silva is one of the founding partners of Bird & Bird ATMD LLP. Susan has enjoyed building a number of the firm’s practices, including its Corporate Law and Environmental Law practice, and the Employment Law practice from which she retired in December 2018. As a co-founder, former head of practice and the firm’s Managing Partner for some five years in the early 2000s, she has had to learn about organisational and personal effectiveness, and she continues to learn.

Susan is a Certified Professional Coactive Coach and an Associate Certified Coach with the International Coaches Federation. She works as a full-time coach, and delivers keynotes and training on the topic of how people can go to work feeling engaged and go home feeling fulfilled.