Supercharging Your Firm’s Culture: From Stressed to Resilient

Topics: Client Relations, Efficiency, Emotional Intelligence, Law Firm Profitability, Law Firms, Lawyer Well-Being, Leadership, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts, Practice Engineering, Practice Innovations, Process Management, Talent Development

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Have you ever noticed how some lawyers are unflappable while others broadcast stress? We’d all like to be or work with the former — not so much the latter. Now let us consider how lawyers’ behavior, and in particular, firm leaders’ behavior, affects culture.

A firm’s culture is the sum of how its lawyers and staff work together and how they treat each other when under stress. A firm’s culture is, therefore, the atmosphere that emerges as a consequence of behavior, especially the behavior of the firm’s leaders. This is because the behavior of leaders is the single most important factor in shaping a firm’s culture. Culture is determined by the degree to which leaders are resilient or reactive, and act in a manner that belies their fears and stress.

This is “self-actualization”, living to one’s highest potential because of an ability to operate well when faced with difficulties. “Operate well” means that the person remains objective and chooses not to succumb to fear, which would adversely affect colleagues. The person is optimistic, resilient, effective, and solutions-oriented when faced with difficulties. This behavior creates a great culture.

William L. Sparks, PhD, developed the Actualized Leadership Framework to measure leadership style and self-actualization. He based the Framework on the seminal works of David McClelland, Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, and Viktor Frankl, and took from them the following five key concepts:

  1. Motive drivers lead people to varying degrees of achievement, relationships, and power (McClelland);
  2. Shadow behaviors are negative ones that can be triggered by the stress and fears associated with each motive driver (Jung);
  3. Self-actualization is living to one’s full potential (Maslow);
  4. People have the freedom to choose a response, attitude, and approach to anyone and in any situation (Frankl); and
  5. Paradoxical intent posits that the more one fears something, the more likely one is to experience it (Frankl).

Table 1 briefly describes the three leadership styles as defined by McClelland’s motive drivers, and their corresponding strengths, fears, shadow behaviors, and self-actualized behaviors. A person has a primary, secondary, and tertiary style, and is self-actualized when able to choose an objective, rather than fear-based perspectives, and behave accordingly.

Table 1: Leadership Styles

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Let’s look more closely at the Achiever. Motivated by success means that they develop expertise and fear failure. When stressed by triggers like ambiguity, imperfection, or the prospect of losing, they choose to let the fear of failure drive behavior. The Achiever micromanages and is tedious, cautious, perfectionistic, critical, and narrow-minded, all but guaranteeing the team’s failure. This is Frankl’s notion of paradoxical intent: the more an Achiever fears failure, the more likely the Achiever will cause failure by micromanaging. Worse yet, when in one’s shadow, the Achiever believes that micromanaging is necessary to avoid failure. It is not of course, and it actually drives away the very team members needed for success. Further, even if Achievement is not a lawyer’s primary motive, everyone can likely remember operating under the influence of the fear of failure. None of us are immune to any of the shadows.

Similarly, the Affirmer is motived by relationships and fears rejection. When stressed by triggers like potential conflict, hurting another’s feelings, or angering another, they choose to let the fear of rejection drive behavior. They can be needy, sensitive, insecure, anxious, indecisive, and overly accommodating, all but guaranteeing the team’s failure. This is because team members cannot be candid, problems are left unresolved, and conflict festers. When in one’s shadow, they tell themselves their behaviors are necessary to avoid rejection and repair or cement the relationship when that actually makes matters worse.

Indeed, as the Affirmer drives away colleagues, it causes the very rejection feared. This is especially the case for both Achievers and Asserters, who find the Affirmer’s needy behavior annoying and unnecessarily distracting from the work. In fact, the Affirmer’s shadow can be a trigger for both Achiever and Asserter shadows, and vice versa.

Finally, the Asserter is motivated by power and control and fears betrayal. While “betrayal” is a strong word, it includes being either intentionally or inadvertently undermined because of another person’s or institution’s incompetence. When stressed by triggers such as vulnerability, having to ask for forgiveness, or not knowing, and choosing to let the fear of betrayal govern behavior, the Asserter can be arrogant, controlling, condescending, impatient, belligerent, and even manipulative and intimidating. These behaviors guarantee the team’s failure because team members fear angering the leader. Members will leave the team or be afraid to take the initiative because it feels risky. Worse yet, when in one’s shadow, the Asserter tells oneself that the behaviors are necessary to avoid betrayal and ensure results. Once again, their behaviors just make matters worse, driving away team members, thus causing the betrayal they feared.

We all experience these shadows. Consider the last time you were impatient — you likely were chafing against the lack of control and were concerned that you wouldn’t get the necessary results. You were in your fear-of-betrayal shadow.

However, the purpose of focusing on styles and their corresponding shadows is to lay the foundation for the connection between the lawyer’s shadow behaviors and the firm’s culture. Culture is the collective emotional intelligence of a group, based on the three shadows of leadership styles and self-actualization. Each unmitigated shadow affects a culture, as described in Table 2 below. Table 3 describes how self-actualized leaders can create a different culture.

As you review these, consider the ideal culture, which is: i) mildly Detached because ideally lawyers can and do work independently; ii) mildly Dramatic because ideally lawyers are polite to each other without sacrificing candor; iii) moderately Dependent because ideally lawyers take direction from more senior lawyers; and iv) intensely Dynamic because ideally the lawyers regulate their collective emotionality and are rational, objective, resilient and optimistic. Firms with an intensely Dynamic culture are the most successful.

Table 2: Leadership Styles and Shadow Behaviors’ Effects on Culture

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Table 3:  Self-Actualization and Derivative Culture

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Techniques for Improving Individual Resilience & Firm Culture

Which culture(s) most accurately describe your firm? How might your behavior affect your firm’s culture? What can you do to supercharge your firm’s culture?

The answer? Make it more Dynamic. There are several ways you can help make that happen.

First, recognize when your fears are clouding your judgment. When they do, pause to objectively assess and distinguish fears from facts. Not only does this improve your own resilience, but even if you’re not a leader, you improve the firm’s culture by staying out of your own shadows. Additionally, staying present and focusing on the work will keep your mind from wandering into those dark and shadowy places.

Second, notice which circumstances trigger your shadows. Be vigilant when presented by them and choose your strengths and self-actualized behaviors. You will be more resilient and start to feel better as you are able to quiet negative thoughts. And others will appreciate your oasis of calmness in the center of a storm. You’ll also be more effective.

Remember, shadow behaviors never help — they bring about the very disaster you fear. And as leaders, you have the greatest impact on your firm’s culture, and thus it’s incumbent upon you to improve your self-actualization.

Third, if you notice that a colleague is in the shadow, you can help. Identify the shadow, listen, be empathetic, and offer supportive suggestions, focusing on how objective facts refute the fear. Don’t let a colleague’s shadow trigger your own by taking anything the colleague said personally.

Finally, assess your culture and consider how your behavior might affect the firm’s culture. Stay out of your shadow and implement the advice in Table 2 to transform your team into a more Dynamic team.


If you’re curious about your primary leadership style, take the short-form free version of the full Actualized Leader Profile here.