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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    October 12, 2018

    On Balance
    The Importance of High-quality Relationships at Work

    Lawyers' professional success depends largely on what they know. Who they know is vital to their health and well-being.

    Paula M. Davis-Laack

    coworkers laughing

    “Few people are mind readers. Let them know they matter.” – Dr. Christopher Peterson

    When was the last time you had an interaction with a colleague at work that left you feeling energized? That boost of energy is an important indicator of whether your relationships are “high quality.” Developing high-quality relationships is critical to a happy, healthy, and resilient life, and they have four key components:1

    • Empowerment;
    • Trust;
    • Authenticity; and
    • Respect.

    At work, having high-quality connections leads to quantifiable gains in performance. Workplace friendships are one of the strongest predictors of productivity, and those people who say that they have strong, supportive colleagues at work get sick less often, are more focused, are more loyal to their organizations, and change jobs less frequently.2

    Paula Davis-LaackPaula Davis-Laack, Marquette 2002, MAPP, is the founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute, a training and consulting firm focused on enhancing resilience, well-being, and engagement in the legal profession. She is the author of the e-book, Addicted to Busy: Your Blueprint for Burnout Prevention.

    In addition, high-quality relationships have been shown to enable psychological safety (the perception that you can take risks, speak out, and be your authentic self at work without fear of negative consequences) and learning behaviors.3

    Good relationships make you more resilient to stress and can affect how well (and how fast) you age by influencing the length of your telomeres. Telomeres are repeating segments of noncoding DNA that live at the ends of your chromosomes and shorten each time your cells divide. Importantly, telomeres help determine how fast your cells age and when they die, and stress accelerates the shortening process and thus speeds up aging.4 When it comes to relationships, good friends help to protect your telomeres,5 but mixed-quality relationships (a relationship with both positive qualities and less helpful interactions) are related to shorter telomeres.6

    It’s also important to be aware of who you surround yourself with because your connections directly influence your happiness. Research shows that social networks have clusters of happy and unhappy people within them that reach out to three degrees of separation. Each additional happy friend increases a person’s probability of being happy by about 9 percent.7

    Lawyers and Loneliness

    Having high-quality relationships is important, but lawyers have some work to do in this area. A survey first reported in the Harvard Business Review, and discussed in an Above the Law article, shows that lawyers are the loneliest professionals, with more than 60 percent of them ranking above the standard on measures of loneliness.8 This and other studies have found that loneliness greatly affects our health; in fact, it is the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes per day.9

    A lawyer colleague and I recently talked about her sense of isolation. She’s a partner with a busy practice, and her mentor of 20-plus years recently retired. She’s not as close with the other partners in her practice group, and she just finished several years in management, including a stint on the firm’s management committee. Managing peers was a challenge for her and reintegrating back into her lawyer-only, nonmanagement role has been tough. The people who she formerly relied on are gone or in different roles, or existing relationships have changed.

    Each additional happy friend increases a person’s probability of being happy by about 9 percent.

    In addition, connecting doesn’t always come easy for many lawyers. Research reveals that lawyers often prefer to have very analytical, brain-based conversations and seek out people with whom they’ve already done the hard getting-to-know-you type work.10

    Below are four ideas to help you get started building more high-quality relationships at work.

    Capitalize on Good News

    Human beings are hard-wired to notice and remember negative news and events. That’s why you stand at the ready when your partner says, “Hey, I have a problem!”

    But what do you do when your work colleague, partner, or child says, “I’ve got great news?” How you respond to the good news is as important for the health of your relationship as how you respond to bad news.11 Killing the conversation by offering a short acknowledgement (“Hey, that’s great”), hijacking the conversation by making it about you (“I’m training for that marathon too!”), or poking holes in the good news (“Are you sure you really thought that through?”) are quick ways to weaken a relationship.

    Be an Active Listener

    Lawyers are urgent people, and many of their conversations have two modes: talking and waiting to talk.

    Recently, I co-led a workshop for some medical students, and we asked them to practice active listening. We told one of the partners to talk about a topic for one minute straight. The other partner simply had to be present and listen.

    At the end of the exercise, many of the students reported that it felt really weird not being able to interject something, but they all remarked that they retained much more of the story.

    Informal and Nonwork Activities

    I was discussing this topic with a group of law firm partners recently, and they mentioned how much they would appreciate getting together with their colleagues in a more informal way. One of the partners proposed something he called “30-Minute Meals”: a group of lawyers could get together for a 30-minute lunch or dinner to just talk.

    Consider designing your onboarding practices more intentionally, to offer newcomers to an organization or firm a chance to connect, rather than overwhelming folks with lots of information.

    You could also spend time as a practice group volunteering or going to a sporting event. While it’s not billable time, it’s an invaluable way to cement relationships with your colleagues.

    Be Intentional With Onboarding    

    Consider designing your onboarding practices more intentionally, to offer newcomers to an organization or firm a chance to connect, rather than overwhelming folks with lots of information.12 This is especially important with lateral hires who are coming from a completely different culture.


    People are the legal profession’s best and only real asset. Firms and organizations that choose to invest in their people are more likely to compete successfully in the legal profession of today and tomorrow.13


    1 Jane E. Dutton, Build High-Quality Connections, in Jane E. Dutton & Gretchen M. Spreitzer (eds.), How to Be A Positive Leader: Insights from Leading Thinkers on Positive Organizations 11-21 (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. 2009).

    2 James A. Harter et al., The Relationship between Engagement at Work and Organizational Outcomes: 2016 Q12 Meta-Analysis: Ninth Edition (Gallup Organization), (last visited Aug. 30, 2018).

    3 Abraham Carmeli, Daphna Brueller & Jane E. Dutton, Learning Behaviours in the Workplace: The Role of High-Quality Interpersonal Relationships and Psychological Safety, Systems Res. & Behav. Sci., 26 (2009).

    4 Elizabeth Blackburn & Elissa Epel, The Telomere Effect (New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing 2017).

    5 Judith E. Carroll et al., Low Social Support is Associated with Shorter Leukocyte Telomere Length in Late Life: A Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, Psychosomatic Med, 75(2) (2013),

    6 Bert N. Uchino et al., Social Relationships & Health: Is Feeling Positive, Negative, or Both (Ambivalent) about Your Social Ties Related to Telomeres? Health Psychol., 31(6), pp. 789-96 (2012).

    7 Nicholas A. Christakis & James H. Fowler, Social Contagion Theory: Examining Dynamic Social Networks & Human Behavior, Stat. in Med., 32(4) (2013).

    8 Shawn Achor et al., America’s Loneliest Workers, According to Research, Harvard Business Review (March 19, 2018).

    9 Julianne Holt-Lunstad et al., Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review, Persp. on Psychol. Sci., 10(2), pp. 227-37 (2015).

    10 Larry Richard, Herding Cats: The Lawyer Personality Revealed, Altman Weil Report to Legal Management, 29(11) (Aug. 2002).

    11 Shelly L. Gable et al., What Do You Do When Things Go Right? The Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Benefits of Sharing Positive Events, J. of Personal. & Soc. Psychol., 87(2), pp. 228-45 (2004).

    12 Dutton, supra note 1, at 18.

    13 Thank you to Scott Westfahl, professor of practice and faculty director of executive education at Harvard Law School, for this quotation.

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