There is a current debate going on regarding the advantages and disadvantages of introducing modern technology into the courtroom. Most of the arguments center on the balance between the purported advantages of technology versus the potential unintended consequences.
Often overlooked is the role that principles of psychology play in this debate. We all live in a world of increasing change and uncertainty. This kind of unprecedented change has distinct psychological consequences that affect the receptivity of court personnel to new technologies.
Luckily, if you’re a leader in a court administration or judicial oversight role and you’re interested in softening these harsh consequences of change, there are some steps you can take which I’ll cover below.
What are the psychological consequences of change? Humans are well adapted to coping with certain types of change. In particular, we have evolved to respond very effectively to episodic change. The classic example is the caveman who hears the roar of a saber-toothed tiger outside his cave, and for the next few nerve-rattling moments, he either fights, flees or freezes. In the modern world, a similar example might take the form of a court administrator who learns that funding for a new position that she was counting on has just failed to pass the legislature. Both of these examples involve an episode that occurs which has a clear beginning, obvious consequences, and an ending that can be anticipated.
We all live in a world of increasing change and uncertainty. This kind of unprecedented change has distinct psychological consequences that affect the receptivity of court personnel to new technologies.
But much of the change we all experience today is more complex — it may be continuous rather than episodic; its source may be hard to identify; and the level of uncertainty it produces may be profound. Humans are not equipped to handle this kind of relentless change and uncertainty very well.
Typical psychological consequences of continuous change include:
- Increased distractability;
- Narrowed focus (and an increase in overlooking important details);
- Increase in negative emotions (fear, sadness, irritability, anxiety, stress, melancholy, etc.); and
- Increased focus on self and less empathy for or collaboration with others.
Under these conditions, when a court system decides to adopt new technology, it can evoke resistance and negative reactions that are surprisingly strong. The strength comes from the fact that people are not just resisting the technology on its own merits, but psychologically they are resisting the “piling on” of even more change and uncertainty.
Here are some steps you can take to address these effects, along with an explanation of some of the psychological principles at work:
1. People see change that originates from outside — change that they can’t control — as a threat. So, give them some control. Let them make decisions, or at least give them some explicit choices so that they feel that they are, to at least some extent, controlling their own destiny. The more input and discretion your rank-and-file personnel have, the more comfortable they will likely be with any changes you make, including the introduction of new technologies. And try to introduce new technologies gradually rather than suddenly. Our brains are wired to interpret “sudden” as a threat, and “gradual” as safer.
2. Change — even “good” change — makes us all anxious to some extent. When introducing new technologies into the courtroom, the docketing system, or elsewhere, be sure to have at least some face-to-face conversations with your people before you commit to going forward. Face-to-face communication can be more time-consuming and more expensive than digital communication (or than old-fashioned paper memos), but it’s far more psychologically reassuring than either of those methods. Face-to-face contact produces powerful hormones in both parties that build trust, reduce stress and increase cooperation. No other form of communication has these documented effects.
3. People are also reassured by authority. When senior leaders, especially those whom the rank-and-file personnel respect, get behind a decision, most people are more likely to become more receptive to their initiatives. (However, if leaders are not respected, or worse, if they’re distrusted, all bets are off.) So before rolling out a new technology plan, it’s always a good idea to get buy-in from the chief administrative judge or whoever else is seen as “senior leadership” within your judicial system. In addition, when others in leadership roles support the initiative as well, this sends a strong message and helps overcome the natural resistance to change.
It’s not enough for these leaders just to support the initiative by paying lip service to it — they need to actually adopt the new technologies themselves before they expect others to do so. Role modeling — “walking their talk” — is a vital step in winning over others.
4. In addition to top-down support, bottom-up support is equally important. To get your entire office, or your entire court system, on board with the introduction of new technology, it’s important to build a sense of urgency among the rank-and-file personnel. Help them understand the pressing need for the new systems. Don’t rely just on “informational” methods of communication (memos, emails, etc.) — also include steps that are likely to evoke a strong personal response. For example, make videotape interviews with end-users (attorneys, litigants, court personnel, etc.) in which they explain why continuing with the status quo is unacceptable, and show them to your entire office. The more visceral the vignettes, the more persuasive they will be.
5. Use “social proof”. Research shows that in moments of ambiguity — such as when we are asked to adopt a new, unknown technology — we look to the behavior of others (particularly others who are like us in some way) to guide our own behavior. Have other court systems like ours adopted these measures? How can you reassure your rank-and-file personnel that the changes will be ok? The more we can see examples of other people just like us who have already adopted these technologies, the more inclined we will be to adopt them ourselves.
6. Research shows that “bad is stronger than good.” We pay more attention to and place more importance on threats and problems than we do to opportunities and achievements. People naturally want to poke holes in any proposed changes. So, invite them to do so. Ask them to consider your proposal and find the flaws. But also ask them to let you know, for each flaw, what positive benefit they can find. As lawyers (and those hired by lawyers), we are trained to look for problems, and our brain’s ability to notice good stuff — benefits, advantages, opportunities, etc. — can actually atrophy. It helps a great deal if you invite your people specifically to look for the pluses as well as the minuses.
Notice that several times here I’ve employed a “both/and” strategy instead of an “either/or” strategy. As legal professionals, we’re trained to think “either/or”, “win/lose”, “all/nothing”; but when the task is mobilizing large numbers of people in an organization to adapt to change, a “both/and” strategy is far superior, although definitely less comfortable or natural.
One final thought — the more of these strategies you apply simultaneously, the more likely you are to achieve success.