Dignity, behaviour and market pressures

Old professor with a green apple on top of his head.Do you always behave impeccably at work?  As a professional adult you might think your behaviour is beyond reproach.  Maybe you are highly successful and any less than brilliant moments are the price of that success.  Being “professional” means doing exacting work.  Talking about “behaviour” can seem trivial in the context of the required standards of professional conduct.

Everything in the “professional” garden may be rosy when the work is flowing in.  But, does work just flow in anymore?  Old certainties have given way to new dynamics.  Business structures change, clients demand a different level of service, people are asked to deliver “more for less” at work.

With these demands, the space between the personal and the professional seems to shrink.  The pressure is on to “bring your whole self to work”, to be creative, to innovate in order to sustain business growth.  Pressure on the organisation drives attention towards the individual.  Can you create a team?  Can you communicate effectively?  Are you a good leader?

Many senior professionals did not think they would ever have to answer such questions.  They chose the technical challenges of their professions.  It wasn’t about people.  It certainly wasn’t about “self”.

How do you start to talk about “behaviour” and maintain professional dignity?

There has to be some recognition of the need for change.  As the old, infinitely adaptable joke goes, “How many L&D professionals does it take to change a light bulb?  One, but the light bulb has to want to change.”  It’s a serious point.

Fortunately, there are really good ways of fostering an inclination to learn about behaviour.

Describe the need

When I was at the Bar, I was taught never to take my jacket off and never to eat in the street.  These behaviours were not deemed to be indicative of the kind of standards I was expected to demonstrate.  Formality dictated a certain distance from the ordinary; a physical manifestation of different standards.  As ways to show respect for the client/defendant/court, those behaviours were valuable.  If, in fact, a sense of “otherness” becomes thinly veiled rudeness, or a total lack of self-awareness, then a person may need some help to understand how they are affecting others.

man in a suit looking very angryAgain, at the Bar I saw the most assertive, powerful advocates become mute in the face of flagrant rudeness back in the office.  Dealing with conflict when it is up-close and feels personal is just plain difficult, no matter how articulate you might be in other arenas.  Intelligent people are often delighted to find that good ways to understand behaviour, and navigate the tricky bits.

Offering training which speaks to the challenges professional people encounter dealing with difficult situations can be a way to invite interest in awareness of self and the impact of behaviour on others.

A good place to start is with a psychometric which identifies the behavioural territory in which a person feels at home.  From there the picture can develop to show other preferences, understand other motivations, and to look at ways of working together with people who are similar, and those who are different.

Don’t put people in boxes

Interest in developing good people skills is more likely to grow if people know they are not going to be labelled with a personality type.  Professional people do not like to be boxed in.  Go for a psychometric which describes behaviour on a continuum, allowing for the complexities of personality and the dynamics of everyday life.

Using the right tool to model those internal, personal preferences opens up discussion about behaviour and the behaviour of others.  Suddenly communication transforms from a piece of “blah” management speak to a meaningful process, capable of being influenced by individual conduct.

Use experiential learning

Understanding behaviour cannot be achieved by thinking about concepts alone.  Behaviours have to be experienced, played with, challenged, re-thought, integrated, practised.  Logistically, you need some space and some good training resources.

Put skills into practice

Encourage reflection as part of a structured approach to putting training to practice.  Coaching is a great way of holding senior professionals to account for change.  Talking with peers about what works and what does not work is helpful too.


Many professional firms operate on the basis that people “should do the right thing”.  These “ right things” are known, because they are the same as they have ever been.  That works passably well, as long as things do, indeed, stay the same.

It doesn’t account for a diverse workforce or an outcome-focussed approach.  Arguably, it never worked, because people are complex and they change.  Think Reggie Perrin.  Is ”doing the right thing” enough now?  Can businesses afford to let behaviour drift in the hope the “right thing” is done?  Maybe a more powerful question is, are your competitors doing that?

Nicola Jones

To talk to Nicola about this article, or any development need, call 07799 237479 or email nicola@athenaprofessional.co.uk


How your firm can embrace the millennial generation’s ways of learning

SONY DSCManaging Partner Magazine

Opinion | 29 November 2013

By Nicola Jones, Director, Athena Professional

Lawyers who embrace technology are the most likely to figure out profitable ways of working in future. Early exposure to all things digital puts the millennial generation at a natural advantage. Lifting the barriers between learning, knowledge management and networking, they have the right attitude 
and the skills to succeed.

Many lawyers have assimilated technology into their daily practice 
without fundamentally changing their behaviours. They tend to be late adopters who use apps, Google, Skype and other digital media as useful tools, add-ons 
and shortcuts.

Digitally-savvy millennials do not simply use technology; they live by it. For all early adopters, social media is not a selection of useful tools; it is a way of communicating which is as natural to them as speaking.

However, many law firms block the usage of social media at work as a distraction or violation of firm policy. In closing down this kind of activity, they 
are also closing down the creative 
thinking that goes with it. The danger 
is that the thinkers will stop thinking, 
or go elsewhere.

Learning in harmony

Learning and development is ideal territory in which peace and harmony can break out over the use of technology. For those used to being in charge, this requires a shift in mindset, a dose of humility and a willingness to take risks, but digital learning will be a defining characteristic 
of successful legal practices in future.

At present, digital learning formats include:

  • digital resources: e-books, videos and online materials;
  • interactive resources: courses, computer games and apps;
  • digital communications: social media and videoconferencing tools; and
  • collaborative resources: digital tools to capture, evaluate and analyse knowledge and experience (such as Your Big Picture, SenseMaker and Cynefin Framework).

Some of these are cheap and easy to set up; others require significant investment. Whatever type of technology is used, the real issue is ‘what is learning?’ The emphasis of learning theory has shifted away from what must to be learned. The question now posed is ‘how can we integrate and expand the individual’s knowledge and skills in order to transform the practice?’ The infinite array of information and experience available via web-based technology takes a different perspective when seen in that light.

Jon Harman, who pioneered the use of digital media in learning at the University of Law, believes that, in future, effective digital learning will involve “truly personalised and adaptive learning technology”, which recognises that learning happens each and every day 
at work. “You start with the learning design,” he says, “and then pick the technology to facilitate accordingly”.

Putting learners in control is the way forward. It will allow your firm to tap into the knowledge-sharing and problem-solving functions of digital media. The learning and cultural exchange can be transformative and produce well-developed business cases for new 
ways of working.

One example of how digital platforms can be used to facilitate the exchange of ideas between generations and grow ideas is Eversheds’ collaboration with the global learning community programme LawWithoutWalls, in which students and mentors come up with new solutions to legal practice issues. Some of the programme is face-to-face, but much of it relies on using Skype, Facebook and Twitter to engage with people and problems. Notably, mentors report learning as much as students. A pilot of a purely online version of the programme, LWOWx, launches in 2014.

The way ahead

Younger generations and early adopters of technology are perceived to ‘own’ the digital arena, but they would be baffled by the idea that anyone could feel excluded. So, how do you get everyone on board with the concept of digital learning?

In the short term, assess how technology is currently being used in L&D in your firm. Ninety-one per cent of organisations say they are looking to technology to deliver improvements in talent and performance, but only 19 per cent are actually using technologies to reinforce the way they recruit, induct or develop their people.1

In the longer term, you will need to:

  1. get comfortable with the idea that learners will be in the driving seat 
in future;
  2. ensure L&D staff are trained in the 
use of digital learning; and
  3. recognise and reward learning via digital media (such as by using 
Mozilla Open Badges).

Digital learning is a virtual playground of creativity, collaboration and innovation. The firms which can attract and keep the leaders and thinkers of the 21st century will be the ones which demonstrate a 
deep, strategic commitment to learning 
as a driver for change in practice.

Nicola Jones is an L&D specialist and was formerly director of Warwick legal training at University of Warwick (www.athenaprofessional.co.uk)


1. See New Learning Agenda, 
Towards Maturity, November 2013

First published 29th November 2013.  Reproduced by kind permission of Managing Partner Magazine