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Using Neuroscience to Motivate Your In-House Team With More Than Money

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on October 16, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It's no secret that in-house lawyers are motivated by more than just cold hard cash -- though that helps, too. Many lawyers seek out in-house positions even though they could make more in big firms or their own practices. It's the desire for work-life balance, an interest in business, or a yearning for greater variety that brings them to corporate legal departments.

Those non-monetary motivations don't disappear once in-house attorneys land a job. The desires for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness can all be used to help in-house teams achieve goals. It's basic neuroscience.

SCARF Down Some Neuroscience

We often think of money as the prime motivator for work and employment success. We show up in the morning because we're paid to. We stay late in order to get that raise. Of course, that's a pretty reductive view of motivation. Instead, insights from neuroscience point to five motivators that drive us, whether we're general counsel or a lowly intern, to succeed.

The answer to motivating others is SCARF, according to Dr. David Rock, founding director of the NeuroLeadership Institute. SCARF stands for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness, the five neurological "domains" that Dr. Rock believes activate the brain's pleasure centers. Some of those domains, like status and fairness, are even more rewarding than money itself.

Putting SCARF to Use

Corporate legal departments -- and really anyone -- can make use of these motivators in order to inspire and reward employees. Let's start with status. Impressive titles, professional development, and public acknowledgement can all play into an attorney's sense of status. A title change can sometime be more important than a raise. A public shout out from company higher-ups can keep overworked in-house counsel satisfied.

When it comes to certainty, clear goals and reliable management can be important motivators. Legal departments should consider working goal-setting into their annual evaluation process. Making sure that employees can "count on you and your word" is especially important, according to Irene Leonard, a professional coach for lawyers. Finally, a sense of job security wouldn't hurt, either.

Allow for employee autonomy by avoiding micromanaging and making sure your team has a say in its direction and in how to approach problems. Taking time to connect with employees on a personal level -- through team building trips, appreciation events, or just a nearby happy hour -- can give workers a sense of relatedness. And of course, when it comes to fairness, make sure that employment decisions, from project assignments to promotions, are transparent and equitable. Poll your legal department to find areas that workers might find unfair or arbitrary.

And, if SCARF strategies don't work for you, there's always the more traditional corporate response: throw money at the problem.

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