Tag: halo effect

CollaborationEmotional intelligenceLaw firm managementLeadershipPeople skills

Mindful interactions with colleagues

Mindfulness and listening go together in a lot of ways, some obvious and some subtle. A recent HBR Blog post, “See Colleagues as They Are, Not as They Were,” challenged readers to be more mindful in working with colleagues, especially longtime colleagues.

The post defines mindfulness as “noticing what is happening in the present moment, without judgment.” And thus the post raised the question: when we interact with colleagues, are we present and mindful of who they are now? Or are we substituting our own mental shortcuts of who they were and what they’ve done in the past? The post encourages readers to “See your colleague as they are today, not how you remember them from yesterday”:

[A]s an experiment, simply notice your colleague afresh. How do they look today? What is their tone of voice? What are their facial expressions? Are they really saying the same old stuff, or is there something new to be heard that you could notice and appreciate?

Noticing colleagues afresh is a challenge. This is partly general human nature: “By the time we have worked with someone for a few months or years, we have developed expectations for what they will say and do.” It’s always been that way, of course.

The ever-present role of email only exacerbates these expectations. The author, Duncan Coombs, describes his findings that email communications reinforce and solidify expectations about coworkers:

I’ve previously written with my good friend and colleague, Darren Good, about the “flash images” we form about people when we see their names in our inboxes. This flash image, based on past experiences, happens before you even read the content of the email, and then influences the way we read the email. While this is a normal part of brain functioning, it has a potentially adverse impact when our negative lens leads to negative interpretations.

I believe the legal workplace suffers from these issues as much as any other industry, and maybe more so (at least in law firms).

An associate does good work, and she builds the “halo effect” around everything she does—whether the work remains stellar or not. Another associate produces a weak assignment or two, and she her billables just start fading away. The effect cuts the other way too: Associates may develop positive expectations about working with a particular partner, which lead them to enjoy the work and do it well. Conversely some partners may engender a sense of existential dread among associates prodded onto their teams. The same effect influences relationships with paralegals, administrative support staff, and legal professionals throughout the firm. And the e-mail “flash image” reinforces all of the above.

Many would say this is far from a problem; in fact it is (a) reality and (b) a good thing.

In a law firm, an associate builds her reputation—for better or worse. Keith Lee wrote about the difference in personal brand (what you say about yourself) and reputation (what others say about you) . The work inside a law firm flows toward the individual lawyers with strong reputations, and away from others. Individual lawyers’ reputations are important because they contribute to (or detract from) the overall health of the law firm.

This is true in any business of course, but the competitive reality of law practice and the pessimistic mindset of lawyers may exacerbate it. As one lawyer stated to Law360 in giving advice and admonitions to new associates, “what takes years and hard work to build can be lost in a second with one bad decision or lapse of judgment.”

I don’t think the HBR post is arguing against a lawyer’s earned reputation and its deserved effects. Nor am I, here in this post.

I think the post is digging into the process of how a reputation happens in the first place. If a reputation comes about from non-mindful, even lazy mental shortcuts of others based on insufficient, incomplete, or inaccurate information, reputation is not only not a good thing but actually bad or at least far from optimal. Consequences that come to mind include frustrated individual working relationships that result in less accurate information, less effective distributions of work, wastefully “writing off” legal professionals despite achievements and potential, and shrinking or illusory opportunities for professional development.

Is working with someone for “a few months” enough to accurately define that person’s capabilities and, accordingly, their reputation? Even if a working relationship has lasted years, could a person actually change?

These questions open up numerous discussions on assessment and evaluation, as well as a “growth” or “fixed” mindset about human capacity, with implications too big for one post. At the individual level, the HBR post goes on to some positive recommendations for interacting more mindfully with colleagues:

As an experiment, consciously seek to notice something positive about the person. What is one thing about this person that you appreciate? What is one thing they say that is helpful? What is their contribution to the organization? What is their single greatest strength? Focus on that and pay total attention to that one thing. Hold that focus and make that your first “foothold” on the path to an improved relationship.

These are recommendations that some skeptical lawyers may find naive. Supervisors who complete and sign semi-annual evaluations simply don’t need to make this effort. There’s a path of less resistance: directing their work and their time to other associates and legal professionals where the positive reactions come more easily and naturally. (Thus it’s very good advice for new attorneys to treat partners like clients from day one, and try to avoid this situation in the first place.)

But for attorneys and legal professionals who are committed to—or stuck in—working arrangement for some time, this positive advice may be helpful to frame more mindful, constructive interactions.


For more on mindfulness, see the work of Jeena Cho. Her book, The Anxious Lawyer, will be coming out this year. Her course on “Better Lawyering through Mindfulness” touches on mindful listening and many other topics. She writes for Above the Law.

This article originally from the Vermont Bar Journal and now posted on the Ohio Supreme Court’s website also touches on themes of mindfulness in interacting with others.

EthicsLaw practiceLegal communicationLegal skillsPeople skills

Lawyers and biased listening (part 2)

Reducing bias in listening is important yet difficult, as discussed in the first post on listening and cognitive bias. This post explores some of the most well-known cognitive biases and how they may impact lawyers’ listening, with some suggested solutions from the cognitive-bias literature.

Halo

The halo effect

Kahneman introduces Thinking, Fast and Slow with one of the most obvious cognitive biases:

“When the handsome and confident speaker bounds onto the stage, . . . you can anticipate that the audience will judge his comments more favorably than he deserves. The availability of a diagnostic label for this bias—the halo effect—makes it easier to anticipate, recognize, and understand.”

Kahneman’s example focuses on physical attractiveness. But the halo effect is not limited to attractive speakers.  The halo effect is in essence “[t]he tendency to like (or dislike) everything about a person—including things you have not observed.”

A halo effect can arise out of any trait. Based on one single attribute, whatever it may be, the halo effect biases the audience’s thinking toward everything else. As Kahneman points out, “the halo effect increases the weight of first impressions, sometimes to the point that subsequent information is mostly wasted” (emphasis added).

Lawyers trying to be unbiased listeners should guard vigilantly against the halo effect. One of its particular dangers for lawyers is “suppressed ambiguity.” Once the halo effect takes over, ambiguous information will be interpreted consistently with the halo effect’s bias.

Solutions?

  • Having a label for the halo effect goes a long way toward combatting it, Kahneman points out. So try to label what is happening. When you can recognize that your thinking is being affected by a bias such as appearance or shared affinity for a school or team or musical style, you can trigger your more analytical thought process to start “thinking slow.”
  • Manage how you gather information, to the extent possible. Information sequence can introduce a halo effect. Lawyers who filter cases with intake specialists are doing this, to an extent: studying a case on paper can help combat halo effects such as potential clients who present well but have weak cases and clients who are rough around the edges but have strong cases. The structure of an intake form itself can help combat the halo effect by forcing certain questions. As Kahneman recognizes, following a checklist is one way to battle the influence of bias.

Confirmation bias

The halo effect is closely related to confirmation bias: “our tendency, when receiving new information, to process it in a way that it fits our pre-existing narrative about a situation or problem.” Basically the confirmation bias distorts our thinking about the world to guide it toward the way we already think about the world.

Confirmation bias is discouraging to think about both politically and professionally. Confirmation bias “shuts down creativity” and shows up as “arrogance” and “bad listening.” For lawyers, a classic case of confirmation bias is not being able to recognize or accept that a formerly high-value case may not, after discovery, be as fantastic as it first seemed.

Confirmation bias also operates in small-scale contexts such as the flow of a conversation. When someone speaks up in a conversation with comments leaning one way or the other, that person’s confirmation bias may then shape the way she hears the rest of the conversation.

When you nod or cross your arms in response to information, your own positive or negative body language could affect how you continue to process the flow of information. As social psychologist Amy Cuddy has written and spoken about, body language can change not only others’ perception of your power status but also your own internal hormonal balance and behavior. (Others have noted the link between nonverbal behavior and confirmation bias as well, such as this Forbes article.)

Solutions?

  • Try not to let a large, complex decision become overly influenced by an initial, small decision in that area. One good solution is to seek out input from a group, where the members of the group have each assessed the same question independently. For example in valuing a case, asking a colleague to look at the facts and value it (without knowing your own assessment) would help check your work for confirmation bias.
  • Slowing down enough to consider the analysis while asking questions from different angles can help combat confirmation bias, as suggested here. Lawyers have the benefit of analytical patterns such as “What would the other side say?” and “How would a judge look at this?” But at the same time, these patterns of thinking could create a confirmation bias toward lawyerly pessimism. Examining the question from different angles also means asking whether an intuitive “no, this won’t work” could be turned into a “win-win.”
  • In conversations lawyers may want to hold themselves back from commenting too soon on a matter. Whether an initial comment is a hesitant “here’s why it won’t work” or an enthusiastic “yes!”, once the listener has chimed in with an opinion, confirmation bias will make it hard for the listener to interpret the rest of the conversation in an unbiased fashion.
  • Lawyers should also be vigilant about their own strategy for managing conversations. Taking over a conversation may be necessary to keep it relevant and efficient. But taking over a conversation also implicates the confirmation bias of the one managing the conversation. Information that doesn’t fit the dominant narrative may be suppressed.

Emotional biases

Certain cognitive biases have a stronger impact on those who are in a good mood. And it is stronger for people who are powerful or who at least feel powerful. The larger idea, as Kahneman writes, is that “[a] good mood is a signal that things are generally going well, the environment is safe, and it is all right to let one’s guard down.” When that happens, our critical-thinking skills relax somewhat, and the automatic aspects of our thought processes run the show.

These considerations are important in a number of listening situations. Having a face-to-face conversation with a trusted and longtime client may provoke positive mood and possibly also a feeling of power. The positive mood and feelings of power could conceivably affect the lawyer’s cognitive processes.

For example, when fielding the client’s questions about the probability of success in a future matter, the lawyer may rely more heavily on the ease of remembering other recent victories. The lawyer may also want to continue to appear highly effective, and thus may answer questions more quickly and a bit less cautiously.

Likewise, lawyers conducting fact investigations might consider whether they feel positively toward the witnesses they are interviewing. It can be hard to detect that a very likeable person is not being forthcoming. The “affect” bias—having positive feelings of liking toward something—can impact decision-making.

Solutions?

Although it is true that pessimistic thinking is less vulnerable to bias, the solution for lawyers is not to cultivate bad moods and negative thinking. The solutions to affect bias run along the same lines as suggested above:

  • Being aware of the affect bias can help lawyers use their people skills for friendly conversations, of course, without abandoning their critical thinking skills, of course.
  • Using tools such as checklists can help insulate perceptions and decision-making from bias.
  • Delaying answers to questions raised during a friendly conversation can preserve time for slow, careful thinking.

Conclusion

The biases discussed above (the halo effect, confirmation bias, and affect bias) deal with perception and liking, such as liking your own beliefs and the people you’re dealing with. A third and final post in this series will address some additional cognitive biases that can impact lawyers’ analysis and listening:

  • the “anchoring effect,” which occurs when someone offers up the first number in a negotiation, thus anchoring further talks around that number; and
  • the “availability bias,” which distorts our thinking based on the availability of information in our working memory.

As always, please share your thoughts in the comment box or through social media or e-mail. How have you seen cognitive biases affecting the work of lawyers in their role of listeners or otherwise? How have you confronted the impact of these biases?