Seventy percentLegal leaders, do you care about work engagement?  This very important talent management concern and performance issue has a strong grip on your counterparts in the business world on a daily basis. Assuming that the lawyers in your firm or organization or department are “normal”, according to recent polling statistics from an industry-leading survey company, you can reasonably expect that around 7 out of 10 [+/-] attorneys in your organization do not have a fulfilling work-related state of mind characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption.  In other words, the numbers support a prediction that more than 2 out of 3 lawyers in your organization do not engage with their work.  This describes the real-world in your legal organization.  These numbers should grab your attention.

Lack of vigor, dedication, and absorption in the workplace – low work engagement – has important implications for workers’ personal well-being and organizational performance.  Just like the business world, work engagement impacts professionalism, client service, and the also the bottom line in legal services.  Though not empty, with some 2 of 3 workers not engaged, the personal resources “tank” will soon have nothing left but fumes.  Of those who stay, who will have the vigor, dedication, and absorption in the work?  Who will “do the work”?  How can you as legal leaders intervene?  Recent research suggests that, when it comes to the issue of work engagement, special attention to certain personality characteristics and emotional intelligence up front at the beginning of the talent cycle can pay off downstream.

Researchers recently addressed the practical and theoretical aspects of the pressing need to understand how and why workers become engaged in their work.  In particular, to fill a gap in the research literature, these psychological scientist researchers looked into the roles of broad and narrow personality traits and trait emotional intelligence in work engagement with an overall goal of getting a more comprehensive picture of the link between personality and work.  No prior research has investigated what this study shows – trait emotional intelligence makes a unique contribution to facilitating work engagement.

This post outlines the research study’s theoretical background; mentions the methods, measures, and participants; summarizes highlights of the results; and suggests implications for legal leadership.  In particular, the take-home points relate to suggested applications of emotional intelligence as a work engagement talent management and performance factor for legal services organizations and their leaders.  Leaders, take note that regarding the independent contribution of trait emotional intelligence in predicting work engagement,  “These findings are important because they provide empirical evidence for stable individual differences in engagement, an unstable state.”

Theoretical Background & Measures.  Several studies have shown that various measures of individual differences in certain personality traits account for the variance in work engagement.  This research employed a broad personality assessment, a narrow, business-oriented normal personality assessment, a measure of trait emotional intelligence, and a work engagement survey. This part discusses the first three.

Broad personality traits, mainly those which concern facets related to activation and energy, can reflect a propensity for engagement.  The researchers examined their hypothesis that behavioral characteristics of certain broad ,”Big Five”, personality factors – extraversion and neuroticism (feelings of pleasure and energy – low levels of neuroticism and high levels of extraversion); openness to experience (creative thinking style regarding organizational outcomes); conscientiousness (among the strongest of personality factor predictors, involves internal drives to achieve goals, achievement orientation facet the strongest, and lower levels of work interference with family); and agreeableness (important regarding professional efficacy, i.e. agreeable workers foster teamwork) will positively predict work engagement.  They theorized that neuroticism would negatively predict work engagement.  To test these hypotheses, the researchers had the study participants respond to the Ten Item Personality Inventory (TIPI).

This study included a highly specialized business-oriented normal personality assessment, the Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI):

Hogan Assessments HPIWork specific measures of the broad factors mentioned above have been operationalized and the Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI) emphasizes constructs (narrow traits) which specifically pertain to job and work performance.  This study employed the Short HPI, a 21 question version of the longer 182-item HPI. The HPI taps into the “Bright Side” of personality – what people do and how they relate to people when they are doing their best.  The HPI helped the researchers test their hypothesis that all dimensions of the HPI would positively predict work engagement.

The authors mustered a multiple prong argument from a fairly rich research background, and theorized that Trait EI (a 15 facet personality facet, multi-factor model of self-perceptions of emotional abilities, also described as trait emotional self-efficacy, as shown in the table image below), over and above the Big Five (broad personality factors) and the HPI (narrow personality factors), predicts work engagement.

Trait EI Facet and Factor descriptionsRecent research suggests that emotions play an important role in work engagement.  A theory of conservation of personal resources, which includes emotional resources, can explain engagement.  Collecting and using positive emotions and accurately perceiving and managing one’s own and others’ emotions can lead to successful interpersonal interactions.  These successful interactions, under the authors theoretical argument, enable the more emotionally intelligent to collect more emotional resources.  This facilitates engagement.  With more personal emotional resources, people can exert more effort and energy at work.  Additionally, trait EI predicts perceptions of well-being and job satisfaction.  These, along with associated positive responses to work stressors, predict engagement.

Finally, a third cluster of studies, meta-analyses, suggest that Trait EI explains outcomes important to work engagement such as happiness, life satisfaction, and competency to support above and beyond broad personality factors.  To test their argument about EI using the research background noted above, the researchers employed the Trait Emotional Intelligence Questionnaire – Short Form to examine their hypotheses that Trait EI would predict work engagement over and above the broad traits of personality (Big Five) and the narrower work-related personality traits (HPI).

Increasing worker engagementSummary of Results.  Over one-thousand participants, mainly from the education sector, took the assessments, answered the questionnaire and survey online, and received feedback about their results.  Without detailing the descriptive statistics and the analytical techniques and analyses, a brief summary of the results reported by the authors follows:

  • Trait EI had the strongest correlation with work engagement
  • Trait EI predicted work engagement above and beyond the broad and narrow personality factors tested
  • The analyses showed Trait EI as the most significant predictor of work engagement
  • After Trait EI, the significant predictors of work engagement, emerge in the following order from strongest to weakest:  openness to experience (second strongest predictor after EI), interpersonal sensitivity, ambition, extraversion, adjustment and conscientiousness

Discussion.  According to the authors, “Broad measures of personality, along with work-specific measures and trait EI appear to be important contributors to work engagement.”  Trait EI offers a “unique contribution in predicting work engagement beyond that of demographics and personality”.  Emotional intelligence operates as a personal resource which facilitates work engagement.  This important contribution occurs over and above the contributions by the broad measures of personality and work-specific measures shown in this study.

The emotionally intelligent engaged worker, according to the authors’ interpretation of their findings, has a greater likelihood “to be engaged at work regardless of their age, gender, and Big Five and HPI profiles.”  These people will have successful interactions with coworkers.  In turn, this will motivate them to become more engaged.  These results, according to the authors, “have practical implications surrounding talent management, recruitment and organizational change.”  The final part of this post attempts to make an objectively reasonable application, and extends the results of the research study to the legal profession, and from that reasoning offers some take-away points for legal leaders.

Greek to meLegal Leadership Take-Aways.  This leading edge research did not involve the legal profession or law firms. But, any legal leader who ignores or minimizes the issue of worker engagement engages in high stakes – “bet the company” – type gambling regarding talent management and organizational performance.  Simply put, legal leaders must understand the evidence about their workers’ engagement.

Knowledge empowers understanding. Those who learn more about the drivers of worker engagement enable themselves and they can seek to improve their workers’ well-being and, consequently, positively impact organizational performance. This works for legal leaders, too.  No contrary evidence exists.  Trait emotional intelligence operates as a primary driver of worker engagement.  Lawyers and their leaders have emotional intelligence.  Trait EI, according to new evidence from this study, can make a difference in predicting and enhancing worker engagement.

Some leaders of legal services provider organizations, it seems, appear to have a tepid concern for the worker well-being.  See e.g.  Freezing.  Unfortunately, due to surplus numbers, underemployed mid-career attorneys and a continued supply of graduates, an ever-increasing press for value by corporate clients and the impact of the shrinking legal spend, and services/tasks outsourcing, among other reasons, lawyers have in effect become a commodity.  This “perfect storm” type of coalescence of factors and the current market situation, I suggest, at in part supports an argument that some legal leaders believe that they can afford to pay very little attention to personal resources – i.e. their workers’ engagement – vigor, dedication, and absorption in their legal work and legal organization. But, the various “lists” about money-profit type metrics published throughout the year seem to demonstrate that performance concerns abound.  Though some good ones undoubtedly exist, legal leadership seems to have neglected part of the performance equation – their people.  People, lawyers included, their moods, emotions, and feelings always matter.  Their engagement, or lack of it, matters greatly for all organizations, legal ones, too.

The progressive legal leaders and their management teams will use the evidence provided by this study, and will seek to predict worker engagement early in the talent process, i.e. recruitment and selection.  Using that evidentiary support, as suggested by the authors’ thoughts about practical implications of their study’s results, these legal leaders will adopt a selection-based approach to engagement. Why?

Legal leaders on the leading edge will adopt a selection-based approach to worker engagement because this research study tells them that proper, up front attention to certain stable personality traits can have a greater effect and impact upon it than interventions designed to improve or increase engagement.  With targeted, assessment-aided selection of “high performing” [not determined solely by class rank or grades necessarily or in the first instance] worker candidates, that means those with greater resources in the relatively stable personality dispositions, i.e. EI, openness, extraversion, conscientiousness, adjustment, ambition, and interpersonal sensitivity, the need for engagement clean-up interventions may never appear.  Empirical research results suggest that with the right people getting on the firm’s bus, a “crisis mode” approach to engagement should not have to happen in your legal organization.

Savvy legal leaders will put their arms around this, and will get the same grip on engagement as their counterparts in the business world.  For these legal leaders, the phrase “worker engagement” does not sound like some strange concept or a foreign language phrase.  Legal leaders poised to take their organization to higher ground and beat their competition will plan for it and purposefully strive to get engaged workers.  They will not tilt their necks and scratch their heads and will not say and act like the guy in the image above who shows the “. . . it’s all Greek to me. . . . .” type of appearance.  Legal leaders, when it comes to engaging your legal professionals, how will you appear?

Other posts on Psycholawlogy related to Trait Emotional Intelligence and Work Engagement:

Tandem Emotional Intelligence and Protection Against [Lawyer] Depression

Trait Emotional Intelligence [EI] and Lawyers: EI As a Shield Against Burnout and Job Dissatisfaction

[Lawyer] Work Engagement Equation: Job Resources + Personal Resources => Higher Performance

“Engaged Workaholics” – “Do I really want to be a member of this group?” and other questions.

Beyond the “Blue Book”: Emotional Intelligence [EQ] Assessment as a Future Gatekeeper of Lawyer Effectiveness?

Thank You

Thank you very much. Please visit again soon. See you next time.  Dan DeFoe JD MS – Adlitem Solutions | Organization Development for Professional Services Firms and the Legal Profession: People. Projects. Practices | Web –| Email:| Blog – | Combining and leveraging 25+ years legal experience, a Master of Science in Organizational Development Psychology, and educationally qualified or earned certifications in industry-leading normal and special business personality, emotional intelligence, leadership, and stress management assessments and tools | Mission:  “America’s leading resource for emotional intelligence assessment, coaching, training, and workshops for judges, lawyers, law schools, bar associations, and other legal services providers and their organizations and leaders.”

Article Source:  Akhtar, R., Boustani, L., Tsivrikos, D., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2015). The engageable personality: Personality and trait EI as predictors of work engagement. Personality and Individual Differences, 73, 44-49. 0191-8869. Copy of article currently accessible here.

Additional Resources:  For general information about the topic and access to up-to-date survey results about work engagement, see Gallup Employee Engagement | check out the webpage for the London Psychometric Laboratory, University College London, home of the trait emotional intelligence research program here | for information about the special business personality factors Hogan Assessments approach to work engagement, see “Why Engagement Matters”, see here | See also McKinley, S. K., Petrusa, E. R., Fiedeldey-Van Dijk, C., Mullen, J. T., Smink, D. S., Scott-Vernaglia, S. E., … & Phitayakorn, R. (2015). A multi-institutional study of the emotional intelligence of resident physicians. The American Journal of Surgery, 209(1), 26-33 (copy currently accessible here)(also the source of table image about Trait EI facets and factors in post).

Image Source:  Seventy percent here | Hogan Personality Inventory – HPI here | Trait EI Facets & Factors here | Greek to me here

Dan DeFoe

Owner and Lead consultant at Adlitem Solutions
I'm an attorney with 20+ years of experience and have an MS degree in organizational development psychology. I provide normal personality and emotional intelligence assessments, assessment interpretation and feedback, and professional development planning and training activities for lawyers, judges, other legal services providers, and their organizations.
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