Why we do what we do (and how to change It)

By Lynne Yryku October 2, 20182 October 2018

Why we do what we do (and how to change It)


“My legal mind made me think, ‘Did we do everything we could have?’”, says Catherine Chow, VP Legal and General Counsel of Keg Restaurants Ltd., when her company experienced two accidental deaths in a short time frame last year. “I was just so profoundly moved … and as a company we were so profoundly moved.”

Her value system, based on law and order, led her to take on the issue herself. Her initial approach was to make existing rules stronger and create new ones to make staff events even safer (though the accidents were unrelated to the actual events). “Clearly, we need rules to enforce!” she had thought.

“I got the President’s buy-in but I neglected to get HR’s because I thought it was my issue,” she explains. “I didn’t get enough stakeholders in the process, and to be honest, I think I stepped on HR’s toes because what we did was crack down on everything. I have failed initially to see the synergies … and so I had a lot of resistance, not against the policies but against the approach. There was no uptake.”

“At that point, I thought I was going to leave the company. I thought it was a values misalignment,” she adds.

We all fall prey to this trap:If I work hard at what I do best, I will be successful.” But what if you work hard, implementing better and stronger procedures in this instance, but do not see the desired results? Do you continue working harder at it? Do you give up?

There are some challenges that cannot be overcome simply by working harder if you are not seeing the bigger picture and focusing on the right things. Fortunately for Chow, she was able to get a different point of view.

“I talked to my friend who owns an external HR consulting company. They gave me the perspective that the values misalignment was really my values problem,” she says. Her friend helped her see that although both she and the company value human life, her approach of top-down compliance because of her legal background and way of working did not align with the family culture of the Keg.

“So the values change for me was, ‘I have to get out of the legal services mindset and into the wider enterprise values.’ Legal departments value compliance but our wider company values family more. How could I integrate that in? So I went to people instead of expecting to send out memos.… I looked at how we can do things differently because the value of our company is about taking care of the family. I stopped stepping on toes.”

Double-loop learning

When you are not getting the results you want, you need to consider double-loop learning.

Double-loop learning is a concept developed in the 1970s by Chris Argyris, a leading business theorist. In contrast to single-loop learning, which involves changing your processes to solve a problem, double-loop learning means changing your underlying assumptions (values, goals, conceptual framework). It does not necessarily mean adding new knowledge; it means shifting your mental model.

Double-loop learning is hard because you have to accept that how you view the world may no longer be relevant. However, the alternative of not learning or growing in this quickly changing world is worse—you make yourself obsolete.

Josephine Yam, previously Senior Legal Counsel at the Government of Alberta and now CEO and Co-Founder of Building Breakthrough Boards (B3) Canada, gives the example of artificial intelligence's impressive advances in the legal world: “There is talk of AI replacing junior lawyers who do routine tasks like contract review and legal research. Instead of the lawyers taking 20 hours, AI can get those tasks done in 20 minutes. So to stay relevant, we need to embrace such changes. We need to reinvent ourselves so we can answer, ‘What higher-value work can I do that AI can't replicate?’ That's exercising independent judgment, bringing creativity and innovation to mission-critical work, creating strategy and exercising empathy. If I, as in-house counsel, rely heavily on performing routine tasks as I always did for the past 10-15 years, then I'm really setting myself up for failure and for obsolescence.”

“There's been a change for in-house counsel where you're not just a lawyer. You're a business person with a legal background. You're an integral part of the business as a strategic partner,” says Fernando Garcia, VP Legal and General Counsel at Cargojet (pictured above). “This requires different thinking. This requires a different approach. This requires a different relationship.”

“There are a lot of things we didn't know when we were in law school. Because the pace of technology is moving at breakneck speed, we need to learn them if we want to make ourselves relevant,” Yam advises. “It's only when you stretch yourself to learn new things and you take risks, when you're open to new ideas and perspectives, that you become a better version of yourself. Life begins outside of your comfort zone.”

The path to growth

However, following on Chow’s experience, sometimes it takes an accident or near-miss to see those gaps. “For us, experiencing the accidents really brought perspective. It made us pause to modernize things that we hadn’t,” she says—like delivering compliance messages within the company.

“I think one of the biggest shifts for me was when one of my staff wrote a memo to introduce a new reporting software app,” she recounts, “and they were trying to think of a title for it—which normally for me would have been ‘Memo.’ Theirs was something like, ‘Same Meat, New Gravy.’ I was surprised but I had challenged them to go to our staff world, rather than making it a legal memo. I really had to shift to value the idea that we are all in this together, rather than a top-down, here-are-the-rules kind of perspective.”

The first step is getting comfortable with failure—that is when the best learning can happen. (Though a lack of failure does not mean there is not room for improvement.) Collect information and analyze the situation. What lessons did it teach us?

The next step is to look at your mental model. Critically examine your habitual assumptions, behaviours and values—why you do things and in certain ways. How do these affect your actions and interactions? Are there any incongruities or problems? Are they still relevant?

As a leader in your organization, you also need to listen actively and communicate effectively. Key questions to gain new insight about both the problem and your mental model include:

  • What were/are you assuming about it/them? If you were to assume the opposite, how would things change?
  • What do you believe about yourself in this situation? What do you believe about others?
  • What unspoken rules or traditions are being followed? Are they detrimental?
  • What do you normally do in such situations? What is the result?
  • What is the bigger picture or bigger outcome you are seeking?

As Garcia points out, “The key skills that being in-house counsel allows me to have are the ability to deal with change and address change as proactively as I can, but at the same time, roll with the punches. I remember back in the day, the answer you would often get is, ‘That's not my job.’ Now I never hear in-house counsel say that. We want to get involved in everything in whatever way we can because the earlier we're in there, the less likely we're going to have to deal with a fire afterward.”

Effective action

Double-loop learning is the key to turning experience into fundamental and cultural improvement. However, meaningful results do not happen without effort. This means having (sometimes difficult) conversations about what is and is not working and why, seeking honest feedback on your work, practicing specific skills and mindsets, and being open to failure.

“I think having an open mindset to learn new ideas and new perspectives, to suspend biases and prejudices of how things work, and to change to a new paradigm is really very difficult,” says Yam, “But staying curious and staying open to new ideas are so important. So I've tried to become a lifelong learner. My philosophy has always been, ‘How do I become a better version of myself every day?’”

Garcia supports this: “I think the key is learning, and learning from your peers and understanding, and then being able to provide your feedback. Then incrementally working on solutions or improvements together. The biggest thing I've seen, in terms of people failing, is people coming in thinking they know everything already.”

There are also ways for you to develop your mental model and expand your perspective outside of the workplace. For example, you can pursue a part-time program such as the CCCA’s Business Leadership Program for In-House Counsel (this is a topic in the curriculum), attend relevant professional development, and enlarge your network beyond other lawyers.

Volunteering is also a great option. For example, Yam's company, B3 Canada, works with large corporations to match and train employees to serve on non-profit boards. She sees her mission as changing the world “because if employees continue to just work for themselves and discuss things among themselves, there is the danger of group-think.” By volunteering on boards, “it gives employees an open, curious mindset that allows them to be exposed to different ideas and to people who are very different from themselves in many ways. So when they come back to the company, they bring in new ideas and new skills, and they're more creative and innovative. And more importantly, they've developed empathy.”

“As a lawyer, as an executive, part of the C-suite thinking is that you have to take leadership for the company and you can get out of touch,” says Chow. “My values shift has profoundly changed the way I approach some of my prior complaints … and has made me way more effective.”

Lynne Yryku is the Executive Editor of CCCA Magazine.

This article was initially published in the Fall 2018 issue of CCCA Magazine.

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