Keeping Work Real and Relevant for Staff Members

Posted October 1, 2008 at 4:07pm

Q:
How do you motivate young people who see Congressional jobs as a royal pain given the difficulty of the legislative process, along with low pay and long hours? A related question is, how do you keep challenging people who have been here for a while?

A: Most staffers first came to Capitol Hill because of their belief in public service, their boss or the issues a Congressional office addresses. After the daily routine settles in, however, and staffers feel greater distance between what they do on a day-to-day basis and their original reasons for wanting to work here, you will often see motivation decline. Your two questions speak to the same challenge: As a chief of staff, you have to continually keep that fire lit for your staffers so they can see how their work matters. You must make sure they always feel connected to that original purpose.

[IMGCAP(1)]Connection to, and enjoyment from, one’s work serves as the greatest motivator. If you address this fundamental issue successfully, you are likely not only to increase morale in your office but also experience better (and more) work from your staff.

Given that many tasks in a Congressional office can be repetitive and provide little variety, chiefs of staff must work especially hard to create the link between staffers, their work and the overall mission of the office. There are some relatively easy ways to do this, yet they are often not practiced in Congressional offices. First, bring all staff into “big picture” discussions. Ensure that every person in the office understands the value that they bring to their job, particularly in reaching the Member’s broader goals.

For example, explain to the mail manager that his job is not simply to log in the mail but to guarantee that constituents receive a satisfactory response to their concerns so that the boss reinforces his reputation for excellent constituent service in his district or state. Or, you can sponsor a staff retreat that includes discussions about the Member’s goals, reasons for running and what she hopes to accomplish while in office. Alternatively, at staff meetings, continually tie the discussion of the tasks for the week to the larger picture of what you are ultimately trying to accomplish in Washington, D.C., and at home.

These approaches each ensure that staffers understand, and are recognized, for the value they bring to the office. Who doesn’t need to feel like his work matters?

Motivating and Retaining Require Different Approaches

We often will confuse those factors that motivate versus those that serve to retain staff. Indeed, one’s rational side tends to take over when considering whether to stay in a job. Am I advancing my career? Am I earning my worth in compensation and benefits? How will this move (or stay) look on my résumé?

Perhaps one of the most frequent mistakes that managers make is trying to “pay” to motivate their employees. No doubt, pay is an important tool to recruit and retain great staff; if a staffer is barely living paycheck to paycheck, he is more likely to look elsewhere. However, as many of us have learned, raises or bonuses given once become expected next time. Instead, target staff salary raises and bonuses strategically to retain your most valuable staffers.

If you clearly communicate goals and expectations of your staff and then reward only those people who meet them, you will encourage and reinforce superior performance. If however, you give relatively equitable bonuses across the board, you not only create an expectation for bonuses but also decrease the motivation of your star performers, the very ones you hope to keep producing at a high level and working for your office.

Keeping It Interesting AND Relevant

In answer to your second question about how to continue challenging staffers who have been with you for awhile, the first thing I recommend is talking to them about their aspirations within the office and/or beyond. Where do they see themselves five years from now? What opportunities would they like to be exposed to in order to better prepare for that next step? You may be surprised by the response.

While you could just give staffers tasks that are new and different to alleviate boredom, tying new assignments to where they ultimately want to be will not only develop them for future jobs in the office (or elsewhere), but it will reinforce the connection to your office and win their loyalty. Hint: Preserve the “stretch” opportunities for those staffers who have a future in your office and who you most want to keep. This challenging work will not only give them new skills, but it will also give them incentive to stick around.

If the legislative correspondent wants to move into press and communications, perhaps he can write an occasional press release, time permitting. Or, if he wants to become a Senate legislative assistant, and your Senate LAs all have advanced degrees, you can discuss ways to manage his workload so that he can stay with your office while attending school in the evenings. For the LA who has thoroughly mastered her issues, identify a leadership opportunity in the office where she can have a broad impact, like implementing a new knowledge management system or writing the employee handbook for the office. This assignment should require input and cooperation from the entire staff, thereby enabling her to develop her leadership, project management and teamwork abilities.

Then there is the staff assistant who wants to attend culinary school and move back home in the next couple of years. With that staffer, you talk more about expectations of the role and ensure his commitment, while also encouraging him to try out some recipes to serve at the next all-staff meeting. Why not embrace the many interests of your staff?

If you don’t know where to start with your staff, begin with conversations around topics including expectations, what they do best, the perceived value of their opinions and opportunities. And keep that fire lit. Ensure they always stay close to that original purpose for coming to Capitol Hill.

Meredith Persily Lamel is director of training and consulting for the Congressional Management Foundation. She works with chiefs of staff to implement strategic plans and improve their management and operational effectiveness. Click here to submit questions.