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Law Practice Magazine

The Leadership Issue

Front Lines: How to Solve the Performance-Wellness Conundrum

Anne Elizabeth Collier


  • Wellness is more than a massage or a vacation, although both may contribute to wellness.
Front Lines: How to Solve the Performance-Wellness Conundrum

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We have been taught that choice is a necessary part of life. There are many adages—words of wisdom—about having to choose, difficult choices, easy choices and no choice. “You can’t have it all,” “You have to choose between what is right and what is easy” and being “between a rock and hard place” are all examples of the thinking that pervades our culture. More succinctly stated, for the most part, we are trained to think in either/or terms.

This either/or thinking presents as the performance-wellness conundrum—that we either have high performance or wellness, and the two cannot coexist. We see it today in the myriad discussions about whether working virtually, being back in the office or a hybrid arrangement is better. Better for what? The discussions hinge on the choice between performance and wellness. The very presentation as a choice establishes a context in which we assume it is impossible to have both high performance and wellness. The consequence of this context is that we don’t look for ways to have both. That is the danger of either/or thinking.

What if you bucked conventional wisdom, applying both/ and thinking? It would certainly require setting aside the routine approach, involve more analysis, require creativity and, of course, some amount of optimism. It’s not as simple as making a choice and being done with it. The challenge is to figure out how to meet these seemingly contradictory needs. It requires you to really look at performance and wellness as more than a simple two-dimensional puzzle.

Wellness is more than a massage or a vacation, although both may contribute to wellness. At its core, and for true wellness, a person’s work environment needs to be largely free from unnecessary fear, frustration and drama. Consider the source of tension headaches, backaches and sleepless nights. High performance is meeting or exceeding goals for client service. Colleagues are engaged, proactive and support each other. They are effective and get results. While high performance requires hard work and a lot of it, that isn’t truly the issue. The real question is whether unnecessary negatives pervade to such a degree that they damage culture, performance and, of course, wellness. These negatives are also what hurts a firm’s ability to recruit, retain attorneys and staff, and affect other key factors that influence performance and wellness. Some suffer in silence—they “gut it out,” feel perpetually “in trouble” and with their livelihood at risk. Does any of this sound familiar? If it does, it is the culture, not the need to perform well that undermines both performance and wellness.

What exactly is culture? According to Dr. William Sparks, culture is the collective emotionality and underlying personality of an organization as determined by how people deal with stress and treat each other. In a culture that promotes performance and wellness, the collective emotionality and underlying personality are passion and authenticity.

In a passionate, authentic, high-performing and well culture, colleagues are open, honest and communicate directly. Colleagues respect and value each other’s opinions. They trust each other. They surface issues before they get out of hand. Everyone is engaged and fulfilled by the work. They are resilient—they recover from setbacks. They are optimistic and effective. This is a culture built on both/and thinking; people wrestle with challenges until they creatively devise extraordinary solutions. If you want this culture, keep reading.

7 Strategies for Achieving a Culture Of High Performance and Wellness

Now for the how. You can simultaneously have both performance and wellness—both/and—by cultivating culture. Adopt any or all seven strategies:

  1. Be a system thinker, not a blamer of persons. Culture is systemic—not person-centric. Fix suboptimal performance by focusing first on systemic issues such as training and communication. Look at your role in the system, especially if you are a leader. Remember that blame begets a blame-ridden culture, undermining both performance and wellness.
  2. Think objectively, speak candidly. Whether it’s dealing with challenges to the firm’s viability, giving feedback to an associate or counseling a client, think objectively about the challenge. You serve yourself, your colleagues and the culture by candidly addressing issues with the right people. Inaction-oriented gossip signals avoidance.
  3. Make it safe to raise concerns. Cultures in which colleagues feel safe are cultures in which issues are raised and addressed without covert or overt punishment. Embrace all feedback and the courage it takes to deliver it, even if you do not agree with it.
  4. Ruthlessly prioritize. You wouldn’t be where you are if you weren’t ambitious. Be realistic about what you can accomplish within a time frame. While there is a time for cheerleading, be mindful that you aren’t discouraging honest communication about overload.
  5. Clean it up. Initiate so-called difficult conversations as part of your commitment to maintaining positive relationships and achieving results. Don’t focus on proving you are right. Instead, stay solution-focused. Communicate that you value other perspectives and believe that colleagues are well-intended.
  6. Clarify and share decision-making criteria. Culture includes perceptions of fairness. Ensure the clarity of criteria and efficacy of decision-making processes, work assignments, credit, compensation determinations and other opportunities.
  7. Keep your word. Keeping your word means that your word has integrity—it is whole. Without integrity, communication fails and performance suffers because people can’t rely on what they hear. Without integrity, colleagues are stressed, wondering if they can rely on your word, and you feel shame. Do what you said you would do when you said you would do it. And when you can’t, say that, too. That is integrity.

If you and your colleagues implement the seven strategies, you will have created a blame-free, no-drama, high-performing, well environment in which colleagues support each other. Sounds like a great place to work, doesn’t it?

This column is the first in a series of three. The next two will address how to surmount recruiting and retention challenges.