#LegalGeek is an oasis in a desert of behavioural dysfunction


I attended the Legal Geek Conference this week. OMG! It was, like, SO cool. I took my son’s advice and went for two buttons, not one. One, and you’re the Defendant.

It was a sea of jeans, bright red lanyards, smiling faces and high fives. The location – Shoreditch former brewery, you can’t get cooler. The food – “street”, of course. The “stands” – just laptops on a ledge, who needs a stand?

There were no titles or company names on the lanyard badges. Just your first name on top. Second name below. Large font. Message: this is about you, not your organisation. Few business cards. Just smartphones, kissing. The E in ESG, innit?

There were several “stages”. No getting trapped in a 30 slide deck-feck. You could mooch. This was no conference. This was a festival without the wellies. Hay + Big Tent = #LegalGeek.

And the speeches matched the vibe. There were the people I knew: Maaike De Bie on leading with humanity, Denise Nurse on diversity – with that cracking line ” I look forward to a time when I won’t be special here”. The shame (of the right sort) in the room was palpable.

Alex Hamilton shocked with metrics. He asked me to do an ad hoc few minutes on behaviour. I was wholly unprepared. I enjoyed it all the more.

Speakers I didn’t know included Al Giles who gave the best presentation I have ever seen on why there’s no disruption in legal services. It’s because “it’s modernising, not innovating” Doh!. Although I didn’t agree with his conclusion which excluded behavioural context, it was a joy to listen to someone who’d thought it through.

Outside London was soaked in an endless drizzle. A mile away a man was explaining why he was not resigning despite a judge (a lawyer) saying he should. He had, allegedly, presided over a bullying-fest in the mother of all Parliaments.

A Eurostar trip away a woman was trying to explain to a bunch of men and one woman why anything ending in “xit” absolutely meant anything ending in “xit”.

That morning’s Telegraph, with no apparent knowledge of history, contained the line “The Irish border is an accident of history”. Thank goodness my Dad is dead. He would have wept.

A continent away, the screams of a man, allegedly tortured to death, had recently gone unheard in Turkey.

And a flatbed away a man with questionable blonde hair was limbering up to dis the Fed because it has the nerve to recognise that we are at the end of one of the longest bull runs in history.

Meanwhile back in the hall smiles were cracking from the exhaustion of keeping them up. There were only two classes of people: buyers and sellers and the sellers desperately needed to meet buyers, especially those who were spending their own money attending the market, er, Festival.

Even the buyers looked a bit hunted. Doing more for less takes its toll. People get hurt. Echoes of Prof. Empson’s chilling recent Radio 4 documentary about lawyers as “insecure overachievers” hung in the air.

Rest assured the unresolved role and purpose of “Legal” didn’t get resolved in Shoreditch. Behind the scenes “the business” was menacingly present. It didn’t need its name on any badge: the all-powerful dabbler out of LTIPs, annual reviews and promotions. Who’s going to feck with that? Not me mate!

And no mention of the law, officers of the court or sentries of our democracy. Most uncool.

But we had lots of legal this and that, and the toe-curling “non-lawyer”. Only those we train to believe they must know everything could use that term without blushing.

We have only ourselves to blame. We mistreat our lawyers. We train them poorly, allow some to earn obscene amounts of money without discipline, and all to work in unsustainable working relationships. Something’s got to give.

But not yet. Meanwhile, they deserve their brief respite at the wonderful #LegalGeek. They’re just people after all.

Ordinary people, doing more for less in an extraordinarily dysfunctional world.

Could KiVa, the successful anti-bullying programme for schools, work in your boardroom?


According to a recent piece in The Economist (Oct 6), Christina Salmivalli of the University of Turku in Finland formulated an anti-bullying programme for schools called KiVa, the Finnish word for “nice”, with “promising results …in Finland and around the world…[with] steep drops in the numbers reporting themselves bullied.’

The core of the programme is “to encourage bystanders to intervene. The main motivation for bullying is the drive for social status. By teaching bystanders to speak up …the social rewards of bullying can be reduced”.

Since there’s little difference in the bullying I have observed over the last 54 years between school and work, especially in the boardroom, my question is whether this or other anti-bullying systems might work in the boardroom?

But it’s fair to ask: who cares? What difference does it make how people behave so long as results are “delivered’? Are we not all grown-ups? Should we not be able to “take care of ourselves…man (woman) – up…be resilient…suck it up”? School is school. Work is work.

I don’t buy any of these arguments.

The prevalence of bullying in the workplace is as ubiquitous as it is in schools. The Economist article presents shocking data on the extent of bullying in schools across the globe, with a few notable exceptions, e.g. Sweden.

Think about it. That means hundreds of thousands of children go to school every day, petrified.

And so too do adults. The recent #metoo, rogue surgeons, and corporate collapse stories (e.g. Carillion, RBS etc.) have at their heart institutionalised bullying. And I meet these “petrified” adults regularly in my practice.

They may not use the word petrified. But they are. You can easily tell by their language and body language. For example: “X on our board doesn’t suffer fools..”.

Leadership is about clarity. Coded language is unclear. The “not suffering fools” cliché is just code for outright bullying and contains subtle implicit awe which is chilling. As Dan Hammond of leadership consultancy LIW says “The status of ‘fool’ is in the eye of the beholder and is often granted to people who disagree with us.”

As you read this, do you see yourself as the bullied, the bully or the bystander? Or are you wondering what all the fuss is about and why can’t people be “resilient”? The latter is one of the most abused words in business, second only to strategy. The word has been hijacked to mean “get a grip” instead of “build inner strength”.

And when you were at school were you the bullied, the bully or the bystander? I wager that whatever mode you followed in the schoolyard you are likely to be still applying in the boardroom.

Or if not, are you behaving in a manner which is a reaction to your formative years’ experiences? So if you were bullied in youth, you might have decided, with a bitter determination that “no one, but no one is going to walk over me again”.

And If you are a total bully in the boardroom, you will know it. 360 feedback will have seen to that. But you will find ways of rationalising that on the basis that “it’s the goal that counts”.

If you are a total bully in the boardroom, the chances are that in emotional intelligence terms your empathy levels are low. You just can’t put yourself in the shoes of “the other” and imagine how awful they must be feeling, possibly because in your early years you got many a “kicking and bollocking” and had to put up with it.

In truth, we all bully to a greater or lesser extent. And I have had success in helping people, including myself, reduce bullying tendencies. But in my work, I have never managed to turnaround a hardened “total bully,” i.e. someone who’s default behaviour is threatening.

My “small change programme” which works on the principle of changing ten interactions in every hundred – just 10% change – fails with them. They’re not interested. My model doesn’t pass their incentive test.

They might say: “Why the “f**k should I change when I can get what I want by sheer force of my personality? And my bullying works. I’ve got to the top of this business or near the top because when push comes to shove I deliver. And all your namby-pamby small change b***ocks just doesn’t cut it. ”

Indeed. But while I have failed to turnaround “total bullies” I have managed to change the behaviour of their colleagues towards them. The adage that if you want another person to change then, you have to change first is correct.

This links with the KiVa programme in schools, which relies on the collective courage of “bystanders” to intervene. And it works.

And you know it can work in your boardroom too. So why don’t you join forces with your colleagues and face down the bully on your board?

Or not. It’s your choice. Think about the opportunity cost to you and others. And also think about the reality that, as all the case studies prove, bullying as a “talent management strategy” does not work over the long term.

It isn’t sustainable. It reduces both performance and capability. So what you need is not “resilience” but courage and the support of colleagues.

Or are you a total bully?