Practice Development Counsel

Phyllis weiss haserot
Phyllis weiss haserot

President & Founder

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Managing For Retention And Productivity - Part I

The legal profession will be spending a good deal of time this year sorting out, and digging out from the effects of the latest dramatic, associate salary increases. This is particularly true of large firms that have a ripple effect on other firms and organizations.

That move, I believe, is a big mistake. Such a response is a knee-jerk reaction that causes dissension among partners. It has generally raised the bar on salaries without a solution to retention problems. Firms need to understand more about what motivates their people, thus, taking the focus off money as the universal solution.

A new understanding of motivation gives us insight into what motivates professionals. It seems to also correlate with what we've observed about Generation X in the workplace and expectations for the generation about to enter the workplace. (These newcomers have been dubbed “Y” or “Millennials” or “Next.”)

From the 1950's through the 1970's approaches based on "need motivation" gained wide acceptance through the theories of Abraham Maslow, Frederick Herzberg and David McClelland. They focused on extrinsic motivation such as achievement, power and affiliation. Today the focus has switched to intrinsic motivation – the deeper emotional and mental phenomena that drive outstanding achievements in both personal and work lives. Self-motivation is now thought to be more powerful, based on self-esteem and a skills and mastery orientation. For example, in a new book, “Intrinsic Motivation at Work: Building Energy & Commitment” 1, author Kenneth Thomas describes four intangible rewards that make people passionate about their work: sense of meaningfulness; ability to choose how you perform your job; a feeling of competence arising from work done well; and a sense of progress.

The development of “self” has long been recognized as a goal of human motivation. However, only recently has research, focused on the fact that people are protective of their “way of being.” Examples include research by Albert Bandura, Carol S., Dweck, and Yaacov Trope and their concept of self-systems. Self-perception is now seen as a powerful factor in enhancing or limiting people's motivation.

Intrinsic motivation arises from a strong emotional interest in an activity and a sense of freedom and autonomy related to it. Many studies have shown that extrinsic approaches work in opposition to intrinsic motivation by shifting the reasons for people's involvement to the outside. A new concept of motivation, drawn from case studies and interviews, is based on three elements: 1) job control; 2) learning; and 3) teamwork.

Milahy Csikszentmihalyi, a University of Chicago psychologist, became interested in a particular kind of experience in which people's performance seemed to be effortless. He called it “flow.” People experience flow when their involvement with a task is fun, when they enjoy a particular challenge, and when they feel a sense of control in being able to cope with that challenge. According to Csikszentmihalyi, learning new skills bolsters self-confidence and leads to personal growth. “Flow” experiences induce people to re-engage in certain activities with even more energy. The result is a highly productive environment.

Being in control of and totally identified with an activity is intrinsically motivating. Having the right skills to meet an important challenge, being able to grow and to master new skills, and following one's goal of self-enhancement are all important drivers and sources of motivation. To generate real, unusual, and lasting productivity, the interest, dedication, and effort applied to our jobs has to come from inside ourselves.

Three central elements of self-motivation in the workplace are:

  • Control and Autonomy
    The traditional role of practice managers must change to encourage self-motivation, the traditional role of practice managers must change. Managers must be a source of experience and expertise. Managers must earn trust and respect and be role models for the organization. Their roles should be to coordinate and inform, develop strategies for the future, and be mentors for co-workers. Practice heads and supervisors must learn how to avoid micro-managing day-to-day activities in order to let people enjoy their freedom and intellectual explorations in pursuit of solutions for clients and participation in the firm.
  • Learning and Personal Mastery
    Learning has both practical and psychic benefits. It refreshes us mentally and keeps us flexible.
    A positive learning experience helps us understand the broader context of our business and the
    interrelationship of its operations. The underlying reasons for learning may often be to increase
    competence or foster career development. People want to remain marketable. The younger generations are acutely aware of how fast change is occurring and the need for continually adding new skills. However, the experience of learning is generally highly motivational and inspires greater personal and group productivity.
  • Work Teams
    Teamwork approaches to solving problems and delivering service can strengthen self-motivation.
    Someone may be a leader at one time and a follower at another, depending on situation, expertise, and inclination. In this way, the team approach leads to positive experiences that bolster self-esteem.


The new philosophy of self-motivation and management should lead to opening communications and providing firm-wide information on financial and other topics. Decisions should be made in the open, away from the secretive or seemingly ad hoc practices of many firms. This will help to establish a climate of trust and loyalty. Most of all, we should allow people to be “human.” This can be accomplished by showing empathy and understanding of individual work and life objectives and a desire for more authenticity and sense of community in the workplace. Employees want to feel respect for their contributions, their ideas, and themselves as individuals and their lives outside the office. Generation X and Y are vocal in demanding this respect as well as voting with their feet. Management should listen … really listen.

The importance of money is not to be denied. Beyond what it can buy, it is also an indication of respect for the value of one's contributions. However it is insufficient motivation and overrated as a retention tool. The three main reasons for job change identified in a study of two million employees conducted by The Gallop Organization were: a poor sense of work expectations; inadequate utilization or misuse of talents (by either the individual or the managers); and a strong sense that managers don't care about those they supervise as people. Compensation was not anywhere near the top of the list.

When asked what, given a reasonable amount of financial compensation, they want to receive for performing their work, a group of Law Practice Management, American Bar Association members responded accordingly:

  • Thank you from clients and knowledge that one has made a meaningful contribution;
  • Respect and recognition in the partnership and the profession;
  • Personal satisfaction in helping parties find valued solutions;
  • Verbal expressions of personal acknowledgment and appreciation, and contributions from a respected firm leader;
  • The opportunity to keep learning and work closely with people one admires.

Most of these rewards are intangibles that touch the heart – and most professionals need to find heart among their colleagues and in their work environment.

Part II will present ideas for translating what we know about intrinsic motivation to specific strategies and tactics firm and practice managers can use to increase commitment from the younger generations in their firms. To view Managing for Retention and Productivity – Part II click here.


1 Kenneth Thomas, “Intrinsic Motivation at Work: Building Energy & Commitment,” Berrett-Koehler (2000).

2 Adolf Haasen and Shea Gordon. “A Better Place to Work,” American Management Association (1997).

© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2000


This article appears on and was posted there September 20, 2000.