Problem Personalities or Problematic Organizations?

By: Peter M. Newton, Ph.D.

Many people hold the view that lawyers are difficult personalities and that the culture of the law firm simply allows these problematic individuals to flourish. Every law firm has, or contains within its collective imagination, the 800-pound gorilla, the prima donna and the unscrupulous, Machiavellian partner who can never be trusted. Such cases are so dramatic that it is hard to believe that these individuals may actually be victims of organizational problems that are best solved at an organizational level. That is, the problems arise not simply from within the personality or character of the deviant individual, but rather from a poorly designed and managed organizational structure, covert dissensus about organizational tasks, and leadership problems, including the failure to respond to market pressures.

To those working inside a law firm, organizational structure can often seem hazy, even invisible. Work difficulties are felt and acted out personally, and since each of us is a brilliant diagnostician of the character problems of others, we tend reflexively to attribute organizational problems to the failures of individuals.

I call this process "personification"-the attribution of systemwide problems to an individual or a subgroup. Personification marks the beginning of a continuum that ends in scapegoating, although it doesn't always reach that extreme.

There are individuals with personalities so problematic that they poison organizational life. A malignantly aggressive, paranoid person can ruin any group, if it doesn't get to him or her first. There are partners and others who need professional help even within the most benign organizational setting. A good psychological consultant can determine the degree to which personality and organization each contribute to dysfunctional behavior in work. Usually, the impact of personality is heavily influenced by organizational tasks, roles and market pressures. It is the responsibility of competent firm leaders to take pressure off resonant individuals by shifting the focus to system dilemmas and challenges.

Case in Point: The `Greedy` Partner

Recently, a firm approached us because of a "problem personality." This partner was valued for his contingency case successes but resented for his repeated demands for a larger draw. It became apparent that the firm was paralyzed by a passive, silent struggle over direction and leadership, brought about by changes in the firm's marketplace. The hourly billing old guard worked increasingly hard in a practice where hourly billings were steadily declining. They would neither assume leadership openly nor follow anyone else. This group represented the firm's tradition of diligent toil, and their influence in the firm was so great that little could be done without them.

The "greedy" partner worked successfully on contingency cases and kept a growing number of associates busy. He did not, however, keep long hours and was criticized for his poor "citizenship." To the old guard, his behavior mocked their values and seemed to predict a future in which their culture would become extinct.

What no one in the firm consciously understood was that by asking for more money, the "problem personality" was actually asking for permission to lead the firm away from a declining market into a promising new one. The question of the firm's future direction and the leadership it might require made everyone so anxious that it could not be talked about explicitly nor thought about clearly. Instead, group discussion stayed far too long on the familiar, apparently rational, and concrete level of compensation.

Efforts to solve organizational problems at the individual level tend to be ineffective. In attempting to do so, one mistakes results for causes and treats the symptom rather than the illness. When a resonant individual is singled out as the personification of a problem that is systemwide, the subsequent impact on that partner's self-esteem, health and sanity can be great, and his or her connection to the firm, and possibly to his or her profession, can be damaged or destroyed.

As for the firm, personification leaves the systemwide problem unsolved, awaiting its next exacerbation and a new victim. This is a costly and ineffective way to manage problems. Certainly the removal of an individual from a firm is sometimes necessary. However, if that individual is primarily acting out group problems, the problem will stay with the group, and, before long, another scapegoat will be found.

Managing partners and other firm leaders need to think less about personalities and more about the nature of their firms-e.g., its tasks, markets, boundaries, structure and culture. "Task" is used here in the sense of purpose or mission. The performance of the task is the raison d'être of the system; a system is successful and enhances its chance of survival to the extent that its primary task is achieved.

Questions to Which Business Leaders Must Know the Answers

Organizational structure is the means by which a system secures the performance of its tasks. Managing partners are business leaders, and, as such, they need to understand-and stand for-the particular primary task of the firm. A business leader needs to know the answer to these questions:

Tasks have a way of looking different to different individuals and groups; once seemingly fixed, they tend to evolve. Further, where tasks exist in an unclear or shifting order of priority, work on one task acts as a constraint on the performance of another.

When task achievement is poorly defined, understood and measured people tend to elevate methods or technologies to the status of goals without knowing they are doing so. "The way we do things around here" becomes more important than the results achieved. Pressure shifts from achievement to conformity and the identification of deviance. The situation becomes ripe for the personification of a potential scapegoat. I call this phenomenon "task displacement" and have found it to be surprisingly common in organizational life.

At the aforementioned troubled firm, the "greedy" partner left. Soon after, another partner followed, then another, until few remained except for the old guard. The departure of each partner was understood by the dwindling group to be a consequence of personality problems and occasioned much bad feeling, recrimination and threats of litigation.

Unfortunately, the problem was so entrenched by the time we were called in that we could do little but point it out and predict its dangerous consequences. The group's unwillingness to face the changing nature of its market, and the shifts required in firm leadership and culture, prevented it from taking hold of the situation and actively charting a course for the future. More timely consultation could have helped this group to stop personalizing the problem, understand the challenges it faced in a changing market and make rational choices with regard to its leadership and direction.

Dr. Peter Newton can be reached at (510) 521-3848 or at

This article is reprinted with permission from the June 2000 edition of Law Firm Partnership and Benefits Reports. Copyright 2000 NLP IP Company.