Now, she takes a look at how some high-achievers’ internalisation of negative behaviour can cause harm to their teams and firms if left unaddressed. How can firms act to fix this phenomenon in a way that benefits the whole team?
You have spoken in the past about ‘toxic superstars’ at law firms. Can you tell us a bit more about this phenomenon as you have observed it?
Toxic superstars, on the one hand, usually hold a senior position; they are top billers, outstanding lawyers, deeply committed to the firm and its clients and are very hard workers. From a KPI perspective, they have a career track record of exceeding metrics. On the other hand, they often lead teams through fear, anger and guilt, which drives a team to perform under chronic stress.
Leading with strong negative emotions may work in the short term, but in the long term, it builds a fear-based stress response in employees. Instead of engaging positively with work, an employee’s motivation is driven by the fear of the toxic superstar’s behaviour. Their association with work and the firm culture can become negative.
Toxic behaviours also make it difficult for HR and senior leadership to effectively manage because it is difficult to tell someone exceeding every goal that their attitudes and behaviours are suboptimal. More often than not, HR and senior leadership have used most of the tools in their toolbox to address these issues.
What damage can this mentality among high earners cause for a firm?
Toxic superstars can have a significant impact on the workplace experience. It is an essential factor I see that drives employee burnout and attrition in the workplace. When firms are fighting for top talent, employee attrition and attraction to the firm are key success metrics – especially now that firms need to adjust to new ways of working and are making diversity, equity and inclusion key measures of success. I have seen departments struggle with talent retention and very high rates of turnover due to these behaviors. This has also led to reputational damages, which can be significant.
How can leadership training help to address this issue?
In my workshops and coaching sessions, I build an understanding of how and why leading with toxic behaviours can negatively impact workplace experience and hinder engagement and productivity. We then look at how you get the highest levels of performance from a team while mitigating burnout. This is done through leading with performance stress and not chronic stress.
Leading with strong negative emotions may work in the short term, but in the long term, it builds a fear-based stress response in employees.
Leaders we work with receive a clear blueprint for adjusting their behaviours and setting up a team to reach and exceed KPIs. The blueprint covers how to master their emotions and the importance of strategic rest periods, self-care boundaries and how to build connection and trust.
What makes for a great lawyer does not necessarily make for a great leader. For example, when a lawyer has had a long career of working with chronic stress and negative emotions, it can be easy to carry that style of working into a leadership position. Leadership and emotional agility are not taught at law school and are not always part of the professional development process. It is these two ‘soft skills’ that are becoming essential in law (especially with an ever-growing number of digital ways of working) and are the antidote to toxic behaviours.
Can you explain a bit about emotional intelligence, agility, mastery and flexibility and what they have to offer a highly productive team?
The days of being told ’emotions stay at home’ are over. Emotions are always with us and, given how many hours most lawyers spend at work, it is unrealistic to say emotions are not fit for the workplace. Our emotions are not all bad; they can be constructive or toxic. For example, if anger is left unchecked or bottled up it can become a toxic emotion; however, when anger is channeled appropriately, it can be a highly motivating emotion.
The first and most important step is becoming aware of these emotions. We say to all the leaders we work with: if you want to control it, you first need to be aware of it. Emotional mastery is learning to be aware of, express, understand and leverage our emotions (and our team’s emotions) to get the best from ourselves and our team.
Learning to lead with positive emotions enhances engagement, trust and cooperation, which becomes a competitive advantage for the firm as it builds trust and loyalty among its employees and clients.
The days of being told ’emotions stay at home’ are over.
In your experience, what training methods and topics do high-earning ‘superstars’ respond best to?
Focus group workshops with a select number of ‘superstar’ leaders, followed by one-to-one coaching, are how I have achieved the best results. This is because I can talk to the leaders privately and address and hear their concerns. I listen to and understand their map of the world so that I can speak their language and show how certain behaviours are counterproductive to their goals and success.
This journey begins by establishing a deep sense of trust and a space where leaders can receive the support they need most (even when, at first, they do not want it!). Many leaders I work with confide that it is lonely at the top, and when they have to to make so many decisions and handle so much responsibility, an opportunity to be heard can be transformational and cathartic.
A client who was initially quite reluctant to be coached mentioned to me after three months of coaching that I had become a ‘leader whisperer’ to him; someone independent of their work environment that challenged, guided and helped him overcome challenges faster and lead his team more effectively.
It is also key to highlight that there is a domino effect when it comes to building emotional skills: it can directly impact client relationships as well. Many leaders I have worked with notice being able to build a stronger and deeper bond with the clients they serve, therefore creating a ‘triple win’ situation: a win for the leader, a win for the team and a win for the firm’s clients.
Working closely with top leaders allows me to model and demonstrate appropriate behaviours, then establish specific, measurable goals for them to achieve and that hold them to account. This is the most crucial element of the training because it is essential to follow up and have regular check-ins to ensure these superstars continue to make progress and have support. Changing behaviours and attitudes is difficult, and one-to-one coaching is one of the best ways to drive lasting change.
How does the culture surrounding such training reflect other industries? Is the legal sector lagging behind? If so, why might this be and how can it be addressed?
The legal sector has been slightly slower to adopt more innovative and effective training methodologies when compared to other industries – but this is changing very fast, especially post-pandemic. The spotlight on ESG, DE&I and insurance risk is becoming ever more intense, and law firms are starting to make significant moves in the right direction to adjust and establish policies to implement effective training that engages and delivers transformations in behaviour. As a result, we are shifting away from well-being and performance initiatives that are just tick-box exercises and looking for ways to drive change truly and turn ‘toxic superstars’ into ‘super leaders’.
There is also a growing shift in the attitude of lawyers towards coaching. Instead of coaching being viewed as something a lawyer gets because they have a problem, it is now being viewed as something lawyers want to enhance their performance. Lawyers are seeing coaching as a competitive advantage for them and one that is vital to ensuring their sustainable success in law.
Charlène Gisèle Bourliout is a well-being, performance and NLP Master Coach and burnout prevention adviser dubbed the “Soulicitor” by her clients. A former London lawyer, Charlène coaches her clients on personal and professional life optimisation through a combination of high-performance coaching, burnout prevention and mindset optimisation.