Stand out as a legal leader. The science of harnessing the full creative power of diversity in your team

The power of diversity of thought. Creating a posture of thinking that is beyond ourselves

Leading a legal team or function is a multi-faceted and challenging role. An ability to analyse, articulate and solve complex problems, quickly is important.

Intentionally creating an environment which encourages different perspectives will lead to better decision making and problem solving. Moreover, how you approach the concept of diversity can play a powerful role in making you a more effective leader in your organisation.

At Obelisk Support, we know the value that diversity can bring to every legal team. It is why we’re passionate about making legal work more inclusive and we’re on a mission to spread the word about the benefits of flexible and remote work, to ensure talented legal consultants thrive throughout their careers.

The way our brains are designed matters for how we approach diversity

Before we look at practical ways lawyers can leverage the benefits of diversity to more effectively approach complex problem solving and decision making – it is worth understanding a few facts about how our brains work.

Diversity – our brain’s perspective on the topic

The legal industry is operating within a world that does not stand still and the era of the legal industry centring on the “tried and tested” is no longer fit for purpose in a number of respects. Lawyers are increasingly turning their focus to proactively supporting revenue generation for business units, rather than being gate keepers of risk. This necessarily requires lawyers to think more creatively and diversely, not only in the advice they provide, but also in terms of the ways they provide it.

There are three core design features of our brain that impact how we process diversity, whether that diversity is in the form of people, ideas or any other novelty in our environment.

Design feature #1

Our brain’s fundamental purpose is to keep us alive and it does that by risk modelling and preferring what has been tried, tested and survived. New information or circumstances can force our brain into its safe mode (our fight-or-flight) which inhibits the areas of our brain involved in creative thought, focus, and memory formation.

Due to the fact diversity by its nature represents new information never previously risk assessed, our brains will want to naturally resist and reject it for the sake of keeping us safe. This in turn can stifle any initiatives looking to introduce innovation hubs or just take a fresh look at your status quo.

Design feature #2

Our chances of survival increase when we live and co-operate as part of a group. This means the majority of us are designed to seek out and maintain social relationships (creating our “in-group”), and our brains process social rejection using similar pathways to physical pain to make us avoid social rejection as much as we would avoid physical harm.

In the diversity context this is important as studies have shown we instinctively accept and adopt information shared by someone from our in-group, and instinctively reject information received from people in our out-group – even when the information is exactly the same. Diversity, especially when originating from someone in our out-group, will most likely be met by rejection from our brain.

Design feature #3

This is a positive one – our brains never stop being able to learn. Our brain has the ability to create new pathways and learn new things throughout our lives and update existing knowledge with new information.

What our brain considers threatening today, can be changed to be non-threatening by tomorrow. Furthermore, we can train our brains to more quickly to reframe diverse situations as positive, rather than threatening, situations.

Diversity, equity, inclusion and the legal industry

While the legal industry is transforming more and more rapidly, there are still a number of us who were trained on a curriculum centred on assimilating legal precedent and applying it in a way that reduced the risks in question to the lowest levels. This type of training reinforces a lawyer’s cognitive reflex to view new ideas with mistrust.

The legal industry has also been slow to update its recruitment approach to include profiles with more diverse skill-sets, as well as the longer standing diversity targets for gender, race and socio-economic background.

This combination of legal training and recruitment policies means that the legal industry has far less cognitive diversity within it than the majority of other industries.

Having said that, there are things we can begin to do today that will help us maximise the diversity we do have and best prepare us for when we welcome even more diversity into the industry.

Creating the ideal creative ecosystem for diverse thinking

#1 Start from a position of buy-in by your team

Begin any creative or innovation initiative with a process that crowd-sources topics to be explored and uses a process of anonymous voting to prioritise which topics are addressed first.  This ensures that any creative brainstorming activities centre on topics where people already feel they have a vested interest and are engaged in addressing.

From a leadership perspective, crowd-sourcing ideas also provides an insight into what is on your team’s minds and where their concerns and interests lie.

You can refresh the crowd-sourced topics every 3 to 6 months, or more frequently depending on how quickly your industry or specialist area is evolving.

#2 Ensuring equity of contributions

Remembering our brain’s affinity for social validation, any creative ecosystem needs to be designed in way that avoids threats to our status in a group and ensures no one person’s contribution is more valuable than another.  Not only may we feel pain if we feel our ideas are being rejected, studies have shown that if we feel that our status in the group is reduced for any reason, we may even experience a decrease in IQ of up to ten points.

You can remove hierarchy from the equation by making contribution of new ideas an anonymous process.

#3 For teams that have a strong existing in-group sentiment

For teams where psychological safety is already high and are non-hierarchical in nature, you can try generating ideas without anonymity. In order to reinforce existing psychological safety include a prize to the individual or group that comes up with the most inventive/diverse idea, even if that idea would not be realistic in practice.

The benefit of encouraging wildly creative thought is that it will naturally train the brain to think outside its comfort zone and consequently enable people to have a mindset that creates solutions more readily to future pain points, and can even bring a fresh perspective to any long-standing operational pain points that your team faces day-to-day.

#4 Connect non-like minds together for maximum creative ideas

To capture the most of diverse thinking, during the ideation and solutionising phases of the creative process pair people together who would not ordinarily work together.  That could be within your own team, or you could pair people in your team with people in teams across your organisation that have very different professional skill-sets – lawyers paired with sales and marketing teams bring two diverse professional perspectives to any problem statement and will result in truly creative ideas generation, provided there are no hierarchy or group status fears dominating the paired interaction.

#5 Align with the brain’s natural ideation process

Our brains naturally continue to sub-consciously process information and ideate long after we’ve initially received the information or problem statement. Objective studies have shown that our most creative ideas are rarely the ones we first come up with, even though we feel a strong emotional attachment to those initial ideas due to our brain’s natural bias towards primacy of information.

Ensure your ideas capture process continues for at least three weeks after your initial brainstorming or co-creation workshop on a topic.  Allow for people to continue to share their ideas somewhere online, as and when a new idea comes to mind – in other words allow for an ongoing asynchronous ideas capture, rather than limiting idea generation to set meeting times.

#6 Align your reward and recognition with the value of test and learn

Establishing a culture that rewards a process of testing new ideas and sharing learnings from them will further bolster the willingness of your team to bring diversity of thought and ways of working to the table.

#7 Diversity needs to be proactively addressed for its positive effects to be realised

Diverse teams that have not benefited from proactive measures for inclusivity in ways of working and recognition are likely to not be realising the full value their diversity can bring, and may even become disjointed and disengaged as a consequence of the natural design and programming of our brains. When we design an ecosystem for creativity that respects how our brains function, we can begin to capture the full value of diversity in our workplace and that means not only higher connectedness and engagement for your people, but also ensures you are creating the brightest future for your team.

About the author


Dominique Ashby

Following a successful first career in law (private practice, in-house and legal innovation) Dominique founded neuro@work as a solution to the biggest headaches faced by organisations through change.

Using a neuroscience-based approach, she advises organisations on how to design roadmaps and embed ways of working through change hat increase engagement, inclusivity and productivity and overall wellbeing. She regularly provides change skills coaching to leaders both within and outside the legal industry to help leaders positively drive change within their teams.

LinkedIn: Dominique Ashby

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