- Much is written about the need for effective leadership and management. Overwhelmingly, people focus on the importance of leaders establishing culture.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Your daily self-actualization workout could incorporate any or all of these five tips to establish and reinforce the self-actualized muscle memory.
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.
8 Essential Management Skills for Building an Actualized Law Firm