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Jerry Brady: Four good reads for improving office culture

Jerry Brady
Jerry Brady

What books do large law firms use when changing office culture? Let’s find out.

At the start of 2015, Stoel Rives, a major law firm with 11 offices in the West, chose to re-examine its culture and asked Krista McIntyre, who heads its environmental work from Boise, to lead. About the same time, the head of Micron’s legal staff, Joel Poppin, encouraged his staff to look at their values. Do we understand and support one another, he asked? Angela Edwards, a veteran lawyer who runs the office, started working on the answer.

Nine months later, both McIntyre and Edwards use the word “empathy” a lot, either as an explicit, written value in the office or as central to how they expect to work in the future. Different books led them to similar outcomes.

McIntyre says she stumbled onto “Give and Take,” a 2013 book by Adam Grant, who’s billed as the youngest tenured professor at the Wharton School. Now it’s the foundational text for the firm’s culture, read by nearly 400 lawyers.

One of the book’s tools is called a “reciprocity ring” in which participants ask both personal and professional help from one another. This breaks down isolation between lawyers and support staff, encourages collaboration and teaches Grant’s major premise, which is that those who “give” are more successful than those who merely “take” or give only as much as they receive (“match”).

At Micron, Edwards uses “Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Compassion” by Marshall Rosenberg (which she discovered in a parenting class) when communicating with her staff of 30. For the office as a whole she’s using “Leadership and Self-Perception” by the Arbinger Institute, which has sold nearly a million copies worldwide.

Arbinger encourages self-reflection. How am I acting? Why do I do what I do? Am I the center of the universe or part of a team?

“We all tell stories about ourselves and others which can betray our best interest and freeze culture,” Edwards says. “We’d be better off fixing ourselves and helping one another.”

I found fascinating Edward’s idea of offering works of fiction to her staff. “From research we know fiction readers have more empathy and understanding of others,” she says. Who knew that Jane Austen, her favorite author, could be an asset at the office?

For McIntyre, another important book is “The Purpose Economy” by Aaron Hurst, published last year in Boise. Hurst’s thesis is that “purpose” is so crucial for individuals and businesses that it’s replacing “information” as an organizing principle for the economy. Lawyers and their staff want a larger meaning for their lives than winning cases. So do we all.

I had hoped this column would begin with “two lawyers walk into a bookstore” and we’d soon find a priest and a rabbi, but no such luck. Changing culture is no joke. In large law offices, like everywhere else, it’s a slow, deliberate, persistent process. For McIntyre and Edwards it also helps to be guided by the right books.