Professional Development: Crisis Control - Resetting & Recalibrating

Sports teams huddle; professors go on sabbatical; toddlers have a time out. In nearly every stage of life and work, taking oneself out of the action to reflect and redirect is a healthy strategy. But for many workers—certainly in the legal arena—taking a hiatus from daily demands to reflect on how to improve sounds like a fool’s errand. With the clock ticking and the case docket growing, who can afford the time to regroup and refuel?

Evidence from the fields of psychology, management, and physiology indicates that an unrelenting drive for productivity leads to diminishing returns, and at times devastating health and safety outcomes. Skipping lunches and vacations, and pushing past the state of exhaustion may make it seem like we are achieving, but that intensity is seldom sustainable, especially when crisis hits. Hennepin Lawyer interviewed leadership expert Dr. Anne Harbison about her research on leading in times of upheaval and her upcoming book Never Waste a Crisis.

Let’s start with the basics: what do you
mean by “Never Waste A Crisis”?

AH: By definition, a crisis is something that topples the world as we know it, putting us in danger physically, fiscally and/or psychologically. It can be very personal—a failed relationship—or societal, such as the COVID19 pandemic or social unrest relating to police brutality. In any case, our routine has been disrupted, emotions are tense; the outcome of the situation is uncertain and things we care about are at stake. Often, we are in a state of shock, confusion, and anxiety—at the very time when we most need clear and calm thinking.

Ironically, this is also the ideal time to revisit the basic decisions, commitments, routines and assumptions around which our “before” world was constructed. Without the forced interruption that a crisis brings, we can be on automatic for years, unconsciously repeating the same unhealthy and unproductive patterns. A crisis can be a wake-up call for addressing what has not been working in our life or career, as well as a positive opportunity to learn.

So, what specifically do you recommend a professional should focus on during a

AH: Any time there is a natural break in the action—a vacation, a milestone birthday, decreased workload—we should revisit the basics of our lives: who we love, what we value, what activities bring us joy and fulfillment, and how we are using our talents to serve others. Nearly everyone strays from their original intents and ideals. Reminding ourselves of our core commitments not only helps us recalibrate during and after a crisis, it also generates the positive energy and vision we need to survive really tough days.

Another opportunity is to decide what you want to bring forward into your “new normal” and what you actually want to leave behind. When projects, client demands, or deadlines are put on hold, we shouldn’t assume they are still priorities coming out the other side of a transition. You may want to “pick up” a new exercise routine, journal subscription, volunteer activity; and you may want to “let go” of meetings that weren’t productive, activities that had become a resented obligation. Right now we all have permission to reassess; it’s better to give a strong “no” than a “yes maybe” in a crisis, and long after. Be in or be out.

What advice would you give lawyers struggling with the uncertainties of a Covid-19 pandemic environment?

AH: Recognize that although we are all in the same storm, we are not all in the same boat. Some of us are busier than ever, working longer hours with less resources. Some have more time on their hands, using it to volunteer, read, or invest in development that they’d never had the opportunity to pursue before. And of course, some are deeply suffering physically, financially or with relationships. As we have this conversation, Minneapolis is literally burning from unrest and injustice.

Whether COVID-19 has personally impacted your family or profession, you are no doubt surrounded by others experiencing great pain and suffering. We are only at the beginning of this world-altering experience. This is a time for compassion, deep listening, and patience—for yourself and others around you.

This feature will be offering professional development resources from the fields of psychology, management, leadership, and behavioral economics. What would you say to a lawyer who doesn’t see the need for professional development that doesn’t relate directly to legal expertise?

AH: Regardless of how much technical precision a profession demands (such as law, medicine, engineering), it is relationships, purpose, and human impact that create a meaningful career. What we know in our head and skills we have inour toolkit make us competent at our jobs; but it is the “soft skills” (human dynamics, motivation, engagement, communication) that lead to deep personal satisfaction and sustained excellence. That is always the case regarding professional and personal fulfillment, but is essential during a time of shared crisis. In our professional role, we can respond to emergencies and solve problems; but we must also cultivate basic human abilities to build confidence, trust, and reassurance in those around us. That is not just of the role of elected officials or leaders in formal positions of authority. Whether it is our colleagues, staff, clients, or even family and friends, how we show up as full people in a crisis—not just accomplished legal professionals—will make all the difference in the long run.

Whether your life has changed in dramatic, or relatively subtle ways during the pandemic, these personal guidelines from Dr. Harbison apply to all of us:
Practice space and grace. It’s not only physical space that we need to create; we also need to provide “psychological” space in our relationships— whether it’s with our spouse and kids, or the next person in line at the store. Being more patient, more forgiving, and more generous in every interaction is vital. Don’t re-ignite past grievances, give people the benefit of the doubt. Now, more than ever, you never know the burden that the person next to you may be carrying.

Get back to basics. What was your earliest passion as a kid? What really makes you laugh? What talents or interests led you to a career in law? Even if you’ve veered off course from your original ideals and longings, this is a ripe period for reflecting on what started you down this path in the beginning.

Recognize the difference between “not now” and “not ever.”
It’s been heart-breaking watching high-school and college seniors miss in-person graduations, hearing about weddings postponed, or even memorial services delayed. As disappointing and real as these losses are, not being able to graduate, celebrate or mourn together right now, doesn’t mean not ever. Recognize that our current state is not a permanent one, and still relish the true accomplishment,honor, or memory.
By: Lisa Buck
Ms. Buck practiced corporate law in Minneapolis and was an adjunct professor at William Mitchell College of Law. She contributes to the Hennepin Lawyer and serves on the board of the Hennepin County Law Library. She is also a coach of a local high school speech team.

Anne Harbison
Anne Harbison holds a doctorate in executive development from Harvard. For the last 20 years, Dr. Harbison has been researching, teaching, and consulting with organizations about how they can thrive during times of turmoil and transition.
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