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Law Practice Magazine

The Management Issue

The Actualized Workplace

Anne Elizabeth Collier and Mary E Vandenack


  • Much is written about the need for effective leadership and management. Overwhelmingly, people focus on the importance of leaders establishing culture.
The Actualized Workplace
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Much is written about the need for effective leadership and management. Overwhelmingly, people focus on the importance of leaders establishing culture. Without the tactical work of managers, however, the envisioned culture as a truly lived experience is missing. This article explores effective management skills for a positive, healthy, “actualized” culture.

Leadership Distinguished From Management

Leaders are responsible for establishing the vision and direction of the organization, inspiring people, considering the future and shaping the culture. Leaders must have, and be able to communicate, a clear vision of the organization’s future. Managers are responsible for implementing and overseeing the activities of people and processes of the organization required to achieve the objectives of the organization as defined by leadership. Managers implement and support the vision established by leadership, including those aspects that create and support culture.

While leaders are responsible for defining the company’s mission, goals and core values, managers are responsible for engaging employees so that employees are aligned with the core values established by leadership. Core values are leadership’s vision for culture and, as such, are intended to drive culture. Effective management can mean the difference between a company that lives its core values as its culture and one that does not.

This article assumes that the core values and vision for culture have been established by leadership. A key assumption is that leadership wants to have clients who look to the firm as trusted advisors who care about the clients and will provide excellence in advocacy, service and client care. Another assumption is that leadership seeks a culture that will have potential attorneys and staff lining up to work there because the firm is a place that will provide opportunities for growth and challenges, while at the same time supporting quality of life outside the office.

What Is Organizational Culture?

Organizational culture is a set of values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that define the way an organization functions. Culture includes a set of formal and informal systems that create an experience for clients and employees. These are the conscious and intentional aspects of culture.

Culture also includes the collective personality and underlying emotionality that results from each person’s “shadow.” The shadow is a person’s reactive side, embedded in the subconscious, triggered under stress and fueled by negative emotions such as fear, anger and jealousy. Consider unproductive behaviors such as conflict avoidance, personalizing criticism, bullying and micromanaging that in fact clash with a company’s values. These behaviors are the result of a person’s shadow. Collectively, they manifest as the unconscious and toxic side of culture. Leaders and managers alike are responsible for culture, including these unconscious aspects. Distinguishing the origins of a culture’s conscious and unconscious aspects is critical to understanding why the world is replete with examples of great intentions coexisting with toxic cultures.

Like the company’s people, the unconscious aspects of culture are living and breathing. The unconscious culture can be healthy or not, experiencing minor headaches and major illness. It can vary in its level of health and fitness. It can improve or decline depending on whether managers regularly exercise best practices that improve culture, performance and well-being, or merely hope that it happens.

Effective management of the culture established by leadership is like a physical fitness regimen; everyday, consistent action gets the best results. Like physical fitness, which depends on daily dedication and consistent action, culture is shaped by daily actions. This is because culture is the totality of how people react to and treat each other. When the going gets rough, managers’ shadows can be tempted. When they are, culture is negatively impacted and a disconnect between values and reality arises.

That means that daily actions matter, including consistent management strategies reflected in how colleagues treat each other, deal with problems and make decisions. This requires managers to first manage themselves. It requires them to mitigate the effect of their shadows so they can effectively address challenges as they arise. We know that the weekend warrior workout can result in sore backs or pulled muscles. The same goes for culture. A holiday party and sporadic happy hours are not enough to ensure a well culture or individual well-being. In fact, they can invite cynicism. These once- or twice-a-year events are akin to competing in an Ironman Triathlon without any preparation other than dusting off the old 10-speed.

To create and maintain a healthy culture, the work of establishing culture must be done by leadership and management. The leadership must employ effective managers—those who will get up for the 5:00 a.m. workout, resist the second dessert on special occasions and get enough sleep. Maintaining culture is easier once you’ve built a little muscle and are in a sustained routine.

A positive and consistent culture is instrumental in creating an environment where employees love coming to work and are fully engaged in making the company’s mission a reality. Having people excited to come to work (or work from home, as the case may be) is of more importance in the current work climate than it has ever been.

The Actualized Culture

Recently, leaders, managers and employees have focused much of their time and energy on well-being as well as diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace. It should be no surprise that these are elements of the most desirable culture—an actualized culture. An actualized culture is one in which all have a sense of belonging, are committed to the company’s mission and experience a sense of purpose. They know how their work contributes to serving clients and are fulfilled. People recognize, manage and mitigate their shadows so that they trust each other, communicate well, and surface and address conflict.

Law firms willing to invest the energy into creating an actualized culture are likely to achieve higher rates of retention and performance, which will result in happier clients as well as happier employees. Keep in mind that an actualized workplace can be created in a solo firm with one paralegal, a midsize firm or a larger firm.

To deepen our understanding of the concept of an actualized culture, it is useful to consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which is a model that establishes various levels of needs that a person focuses on and must meet before moving to the next need in the hierarchy. Maslow suggested that businesses “can set up the conditions so that peak experiences are more likely, or one can perversely set up conditions so that they are less likely.”

The most basic level in the hierarchy of needs is that of physiological needs. At this level, the needs are concerning basic survival, including employment and sufficient income. The second level of needs is security. Security can be about physical safety, emotional safety, fair work practices and such things as benefits. While it might be easy to ignore these two basic levels in the workplace, there may be employees whose needs at these levels need to be met.

The third level of needs is that of social needs. This and the prior level (safety) are where the “I” of DEI lives. For a culture to truly embody diversity, equity and inclusion, it must meet the needs of all employees with respect to acceptance, friendship, communication and feeling part of a network. The fourth level is esteem needs. At this level, the focus is on self-respect, achievement, recognition and appreciation.

At the top of the hierarchy is self-actualization. A self-actualized person has achieved such status through internal growth and development. Self-actualization is the process of becoming or actualizing one’s highest self and/or potential. Self-actualized people connect deeply to a sense of purpose beyond the normal day to day. They are grateful, humble and fulfilled. The more self-actualized a manager is, the greater the manager’s capacity to operate from a sense of abundance and strength instead of scarcity and fear. The manager is more resilient in the face of adversity and is better able to reduce the intensity of the manager’s own shadow.

An actualized corporate culture does not occur by accident. It results from intentional leadership and commitment by management to effectuating the culture by both implementing leadership’s conscious vision and remaining in a self-actualized, shadow-minimized place. In an actualized culture, leadership

recognizes the need for their managers to be fit athletes—meaning self-actualized. Leadership is willing to invest in its managers as people and its people as managers, not just revenue producers.

The Best Managers Seek and Train For Intense Self-Actualization

A self-actualized person is living to his or her highest potential. The self-actualized don’t let their shadows drive their personal or professional life. It’s not that they aren’t ever in their shadow, but like any true athlete, their recovery time is shorter. Similarly, managers who are willing to look in the mirror and confront who they are and how they function have the capacity to achieve greater self-actualization. Like any successful athlete, they recognize their managerial challenges and “go to the gym” to increase their fitness and capacity to be better. Whether going to the gym means training, mentoring, working with a coach or seeking feedback, they have a plan other than hope.

Managers whose very presence contributes positively to culture have confronted their shadow and remain vigilant. Rather than succumb to fears of conflict, looking bad or failure, they train themselves to be objective, addressing challenges proactively with a problem-solving mindset. A manager who can stay out of the shadow can be effective both as a manager and as an example. A manager who has achieved a higher degree of self-actualization is more likely to be able to engage in management skills that will result in an actualized culture. Achieving this requires confronting the facts about oneself and being willing to engage in actions that will allow the manager to move from the shadow to actualized.

Applying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in the Workplace

Managers can use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to consider how best to improve workplace culture on a systemic and individual level. The theory is that a person (and a culture) must satisfy the needs of a level in the hierarchy before the next level even becomes relevant. For example, a person whose basic physiological needs aren’t being met isn’t going to care when the manager speaks about self-actualization and reaching one’s highest potential.

There are some simple strategies a manager can employ to ensure employee needs are being met at each level of the hierarchy. At the most basic level, these include having food and water available for employees, maintaining a comfortable workplace, and ensuring positive environmental factors. When considering basic needs, managers should consider all employees. A new associate may have a large pile of debt. A longtime paralegal could be going through a divorce and suddenly becoming a single parent. A senior attorney might have health issues that are threatening survival. Employees who are struggling for survival will struggle to be motivated to perform at the highest level.

A safe work environment is also crucial. Provide ergonomic workspaces. Guidelines and responsibilities need to be clear. Managers must communicate about policies related to safety and well-being. Consider health insurance, safety training and fair allocation of workload among employees.

A law firm can create opportunities for socialization. If you have sufficient personnel, establish a team to plan activities. If you are a solo, consider bar association activities that include your paralegal or paralegal associations. Teambuilding exercises can be very meaningful and encourage bonding and trust among employees.

Employees also have needs for esteem. Managers can support employees with respect to this need by providing job challenges and opportunities. Create challenges but avoid overburdening. Additionally, ensure that employees have opportunities allocated in a fair and meaningful manner. The Black lesbian attorney should have similar opportunities as the white, male, heterosexual attorney. Manage this with data.

At the level of self-actualization, work with employees to develop their skills and vision for their future. Provide mentoring. Engage in career discussions. Review CLE opportunities and speaking opportunities. Listen to the dreams of your employees and help them achieve them. Offer employees opportunities for growth that fit with their ambitious professional and personal development plans. Strategies will likely include on-thejob training and opportunities to attend seminars or obtain continuing education. Encourage all employees to engage in leadership training.

Tips For Training For Greater Self-Actualization

Your daily self-actualization workout could incorporate any or all of these five tips to establish and reinforce the self-actualized muscle memory.

  1. Know your shadow’s triggers. Remember that the shadow manifests in unchecked and reactive behavior that is triggered under stress and fueled by negative emotions. None of your stressors or reactions are new. Identify the situations—including people—that seem to trigger you and develop a plan to avoid being triggered. The plan could include breathing exercises, simple reminders that this person challenges your shadow and to remain vigilant, preparing with a trusted friend, or simply waiting to address triggering situations until you have had a good night’s sleep or are otherwise mentally prepared. Go to arudia for more insight into your shadows.
  2. Be objective and accepting, not defensive, about your struggles. We all struggle with something. Accepting the existence of the struggle allows you to focus your energy on devising a strategy for success. With that said, be sure to avoid an excess focus on what you perceive as your “weaknesses.” This can result in your shadow taking over.
  3. Boost your solution-focused mindset. When things go wrong, the temptation to blame colleagues, yourself or circumstances can be irresistible at times. Energy spent on blame is energy focused away from finding a solution. Ignore your inside and others’ outside “blame-voice” as you focus everyone on finding the solution.
  4. Prioritize self-care. Never compromise selfcare. Block it out on your calendar with the highest priority and don’t ever reschedule. If you need a work-related motive to prioritize yourself, know that failing to do so most likely will paradoxically result in shadow thinking and behaviors dominating your management style.
  5. Schedule strategically for resilience. Resilience is built by self-awareness, mindfulness, self-care, positive relationships and intentionality. If you need time to yourself in the morning to read, do yoga or run, take it. If reviewing email before going to the office means you can be fully present for others, do that. The point is to identify what is and what isn’t working for you and fix the latter. The same goes with people. It’s not that you want to surround yourself with sycophants, but you do want to surround yourself with people who genuinely care about your well-being and are positive about you as a person.

How to Get Out of Your Shadow, Now

Even though you have built your self-actualization muscle and stamina, there will be the proverbial “bad day.” While it may be difficult, you can still bring your best self—your self-actualized self—to the office. Practice these five strategies to build your self-actualization muscle, but also as your emergency self-actualization electrolytes or CPR. Remember, panic doesn’t yield the best results.

  1. Create a time-out. If you are in a tense situation, find a way to take a break. It may be as simple as saying, “I’d like some time to reflect so I can give you my best thinking.”
  2. Breathe, deeply. As you breathe, shift your focus entirely to the breath, the present moment. Think about how your body feels as the tension dissipates and the fight or flight instinct dissolves. Now you can have a shadowfree conversation.
  3. Choose cordiality over shadow. Grace matters the most in tough moments. Exercising positivity when everything is great is easy. Learn to practice cordiality when you don’t want to—like when you know you are right or the other person’s shadow is triggering yours. The self-aware look back on shadow experiences with chagrin and even shame. Don’t be hard on yourself, but at the same time, set yourself up for success. Snark only works in sitcoms.
  4. Focus on what you can do. To achieve that focus, eliminate distractions, practice mindfulness, take a break. Train your brain on a regular basis. Bottom line, if you can’t do anything about an aspect of a problem, focus where you can make a difference.
  5. Reduce reactivity with curiosity. Step back and assess your belief about the person or situation. Ask questions without injecting conclusions. Assume you are missing facts and that others have the best of intentions.

8 Essential Management Skills for Building an Actualized Law Firm

  1. Develop a problem-solving mindset. Whether a problem is a communication snafu, a difficult client, a problem employee or a productivity problem, a manager who adopts a problem-solving mindset is exhibiting self-actualization and on the road to both solving the problem and promoting a healthy culture. Blame and excuses are a sign of the shadow and harm culture.

    Solving a problem first requires embracing the problem. Second, the focus must be on solving the problem rather than on becoming enmeshed in the problem itself, with all the attendant implications. This may seem like a subtle difference, but if the mind is thinking “problem,” distracting fire alarms go off in the manager’s head and the manager might be more prone to functioning from the manager’s shadow.
  2. Check your communication. Effective communication is vital to creating an actualized law firm. Despite the importance of communication, the lack thereof remains a top complaint of employees—and clients. The relationship between miscommunication, as well as lack of communication, and negative outcomes is strong.

    Managers spend 50%–80% of their time engaged in communication. Effective communication retains employees, improves overall performance and increases company value. While leaders are responsible for communications that inspire, managers are responsible for communication that will result in an actualized environment. A manager functioning from his or her shadow might be curt and abrupt, negatively affecting the likelihood of achieving positive outcomes. Keep in mind the earlier suggestion that managers seek self-actualization and learn how to function in a self-actualized manner even on the days they may feel challenged to do so. When stress, overwhelm and frustration tempt operation in the shadow, the manager must dig deep for self-actualized behaviors.

    The purposes of communication in an organization include updating employees on policies, managing change, providing information, inspiring employees, coordinating, improving processes, keeping employees informed and providing social engagement.

    Effective communication isn’t about the message itself but about how any communication works between a sender and a recipient. It is very common that a person communicating a message believes that the message is clear and simple while the recipient has no idea what the person communicating is intending to say. Another common problem is that employees think they are hearing different messages from different leaders and managers, which can result in confusion at best and cynicism at worst. Neither are good for culture.
  3. Hire employees who share the company’s core values. A toxic employee is one of the quickest ways to destroy a self-actualized culture. It may be difficult currently to hire employees for certain positions; however, law firms should avoid the temptation of filling slots with individuals who don’t share the values and behaviors that shape the company’s culture. Unity and trust are required to maintain a positive culture. Hiring someone who doesn’t fit in can result in the loss of someone who does.
  4. Provide opportunities for brainstorming and feedback. Earlier in this article, we pointed out the importance of a problem- solving or solution-oriented mindset. Problems are often more readily solved by bringing together different perspectives. There are a variety of approaches to brainstorming, some of which appeal to different learning and creativity styles. Managers who try and employ a variety of approaches are more successful in engaging all employees. By way of example, one approach to brainstorming is to look for more questions about an issue rather than for answers. This approach to brainstorming may make it easier when a brainstorming session is seeking to find the way into uncharted territory—maybe real change in DEI results.
  5. Promote DEI. The concept of DEI is the concept of fair and equitable treatment of everyone in the workplace. This is particularly applicable to those who have been historically subject to discrimination in the workplace.

    Achieving DEI is more than just adopting a policy. It requires actively gathering data to determine whether an organization is achieving what its policy says it will. It also involves education and regular attention to whether the workplace culture is sustaining a sense of equity.
  6. Mentor like you mean it. A positive culture is more likely to be maintained where management implements and rewards mentoring. Within an organization, mentoring primarily provides support for professional development but may also provide support with respect to personal development.

    An effective organizational mentoring program will have a clear goal and a process for implementation of the program. The process will include determining who will act as mentors and how mentees will enter the program. Mentors should receive training on mentoring, and measures for the success of the program should be established. Mentors will get “credit” for mentoring, not just billable time.
  7. Make well-being a meaningful part of the workplace. The term well-being is intentionally used here rather than wellness. Wellness is generally perceived as a term relating to health. Well-being is broader and encompasses all aspects of feeling generally positive. Well-being in the workplace includes feeling safe emotionally and physically while at work. It also encompasses the way employees feel about the work they are doing and the support that they receive as a person, rather than as just employees at the organization.

    Connections exist between well-being in the workplace and most of the topics mentioned in this article. For example, an employee who belongs to a racial group that has historically been discriminated against will have a greater sense of well-being if he or she has been given opportunities similar to those historically offered only to certain groups. An employee who is balancing raising young children, dealing with an aging parent and trying to stay on a career path will have a greater sense of well-being if such employee feels supported in managing the challenges at work and outside of work.

    Well-being in the workplace is essential to maintaining a healthy culture and retaining employees.
  8. Use technology to keep employees connected. Many companies now allow some level of remote work for some employees. This increases the challenges to managers in maintaining a positive culture, particularly where socialization is important.

    Technology can assist in dealing with a dispersed workforce. In addition to applications such as Teams for communication, employee engagement platforms have evolved. Keep an eye on what is working and what isn’t when it comes connection. Your employees are smart. Make them part of the solution by inviting them to brainstorm ideas for deepening connection and improving culture in what is likely a hybrid workplace.

    Both leadership and management make critical contributions to culture. Leadership establishes values and vision. Management implements. The culture, both the conscious and unconscious aspects, are affected by how managers are—self-actualized or fear-driven—and what they do. It is our hope that this article provides both leaders and managers with clarity about what might be missing in their efforts to create an actualized culture.