The “Suck It Up Buttercup” Fallacy: Why Being Mean to Your Associates May Backfire

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Veronica Matthews is an Executive Coach at Fringe PD, where their mission is to help people communicate better and create more human workplaces.

It’s no secret, lawyers and the legal profession have been referred to as dog-eat-dog. It is understandable why – the legal system is inherently adversarial; the situations involve high stakes; and there are extreme time pressures. One might also say that many successful attorneys came up through the ranks under partners who could be described as bristly, all in the name of learning how to be resilient and tough.

No doubt, clients may yell, opposing counsel will oftentimes go for the jugular, and judges will be no-nonsense. No doubt, associates will need to learn how to respond to these situations without folding under pressure. What better way to train them in how to respond than by being mean, adversarial, and harsh, right? Actually, No! 

Just because that’s how it was done in the past doesn’t make it the best way to handle things now, or ever, really. In fact, being mean, bristly, and overly harsh could be regarded as bullying and uncivil, which could have damaging effects on your firm’s culture and ability to retain your top talent. No one will disagree that having thick skin in the legal profession is necessary; however, being mean to your associates with the intention of toughening them up just may backfire on you.

In fact, Christine Porath, author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace, says that “rudeness and disrespect can pass from person to person like a virus and the human and financial toll on companies can be devastating.” Her findings include that incivility made people far less motivated, resulting in 66% less work effort, 80% loss of work time, and 12% choosing to leave their employment. According to 2Civility, 65% of people globally express that the lack of civility and mutual respect today is at its worst, and 54% of lawyers have experienced uncivil or unprofessional behavior in the last 6 months, as reported by the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism. 

If your firm has been experiencing low employee engagement, high turnover, and high levels of employee burnout, consider that incivility in the workplace could be a culprit and that the “Suck it up Buttercup” philosophy is backfiring. In fact, when you look at the actual results of toughening up associates through incivility you see that this philosophy is really a Buttercup Fallacy. Especially when there are better ways to ‘toughen up’ your associates so that they are prepared for rude clients, overbearing opposing counsel, and potentially short-tempered judges. 

3 Costly Ways “Suck it Up Buttercup” Backfires

1. Low Employee Engagement

Gallup defines Employee Engagement as the involvement and enthusiasm employees have in their work and their workplace. Job satisfaction is closely tied to employees’ enthusiasm for their work and their employer. When employees aren’t treated with respect, they will check out and disengage from the offending parties and lose interest in their work. Far worse, they will lose respect for the people that treat them disrespectfully. Low engagement and disengagement are costly side effects of the Buttercup Fallacy. 

2. Burnout

According to a  Bloomberg Law study, respondents reported experiencing burnout 52% of the time. Burnout is a state of exhaustion that affects the physical, emotional, and mental aspects of a person caused by prolonged or repeated stress, especially from work or interpersonal situations. The Buttercup Fallacy is an example of this type of interpersonal situation – the unnecessary mistreatment of one person by another for the sake of creating resiliency. Burnout isn’t just stress; it is the impact of stress over long periods of time and under extreme conditions. The average person, and the team here at Fringe PD, would certainly consider being berated, yelled at, or subject to less than respectful treatment as an extreme condition. And, before you jump in with the “but they mean well” argument, let me share that the impact of this treatment is more important than the intent. Even if the intent is to create a more resilient attorney, the impact will lead to burnout before that attorney has the opportunity to build that supposed resilience.

3. Turnover

After an employee loses interest in their work and their departure from the firm is often not far behind. With the effects of burnout in the picture, their departure will likely be accelerated. Even if a few associates tough it out, and grow that thick skin becoming bulldog attorneys, many, many more will simply leave. According to the NALP Foundation’s 2021 report that 6% of first-year associates leave in their first year due to the lack of work-life balance, and, you guessed it, a toxic work culture. And this outcome doesn’t come cheap. Turnover costs organizations a pretty penny. In 2018, collectively, according to Attorney at Work, the top 400 law firms in the country lost $9.1 billion annually. In 2022, the figure stands at $1 trillion or can range between 20-400% of an employee’s salary. These costs and losses are an extremely high price for wanting to toughen up a few associates.

How to Train Tough Attorneys Without the Buttercup Fallacy

If partners and supervisors aren’t emulating tough clients, opposing counsel, and judges, how can we train associates to deal with those situations effectively? There are a few things you want to put in place. 

  • Check in with the firm’s culture. Studies show when an employee is engaged with meaningful work AND in a positive company culture, their work quality can increase as much as 33%. Has the Buttercup philosophy permeated your firm’s culture? Or are there only a few holdouts engaging in this behavior? The data doesn’t lie – positive and engaging cultures lead to more productive and satisfied employees. So if the goal is to train effective and productive lawyers, the culture needs to shift away from the Buttercup Fallacy.
  • Reward respectful behavior. Reflect on what incentives are in place at your firm. Look at who gets promoted and rewarded. If those who have a reputation for being difficult, yelling, and treating others disrespectfully get rewarded, their behavior will be emulated by others. Instead, be sure to reward the attorneys that have a reputation for upholding the firm’s values. Be sure that those are the behaviors that are called out and visible to others as key indicators of being a successful attorney.
  • Provide training on dealing with difficult people. Associates don’t have to be exposed to disrespectful treatment to know how to handle it. Group training and small group or one-on-one coaching can give associates the skills and experience they need to handle uncomfortable and high-pressure situations. In fact, if an associate feels more engaged and confident in their work, they’re likely much more able to handle and bounce back from a contentious situation than if they’re burnt out and reactionary. (Reach out to us at FringePD to learn more about these solutions!)
  • Provide coaching for the Partners. While behavior shifts are not easy, with the proper support and motivation, behavior shifts are possible. Often successful attorneys need to be reminded that they succeeded not because of the uncivil environments they came up in but in spite of them. Coaching can help folks realize that they are repeating behavior patterns that they themselves did not enjoy when they were more junior, and it can help build management toolboxes so that supervisors can train associates appropriately without resorting to this type of toxic exposure therapy. 

The age-old strategies for strengthening an associate’s resilience against rude and insolent behavior by subjecting them to said behavior are overrated and outdated. Civility and development are much more effective approaches to helping associates stand up to the pressures they will face as attorneys. And, not coincidentally, these are also the things that help create a positive firm culture that can retain top talent. Try them on for size and see the powerful effects they will have on your firm.

Schedule time with us today to learn more about how to shift some of these entrenched management philosophies and create more effective learning cultures. 

Veronica Matthews, Executive Coach, Fringe Professional Development

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