Chief Counsel: How to Help Staffers Feel Part of a Great Team

Posted May 20, 2009 at 2:34pm

Q: My staff doesn’t get along in D.C., let alone between the D.C. and district offices. How can I foster teamwork among my staff members?

[IMGCAP(1)]A: Think about the best team you have ever been on. What were the attributes of that team? What made it great? In your role as chief of staff you can re-create those attributes on your team. Positive qualities that may come to mind include: shared goals, clearly defined roles, strong leadership, a positive attitude, trust and effective communications. Andrew Carnegie crystallized the concept of teamwork as follows: “Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives.—

So you must start your quest by ensuring your “team— has a common vision. Does your staff share ownership of an outcome, mission, goals and strategy? If the answer is no, then the expectation that they act like a “team— is unrealistic at this point. On the other hand, if you have a common vision or you would like to create one, then you can make progress toward fostering teamwork in your office.

Common Vision

The first step then is to create and communicate your Member’s vision, ideally through a strategic planning process, preferably in an all-staff retreat but alternatively through documents that all staff can access and understand. Questions to explore in developing this shared vision may include:

• What are the Member’s aspirations?

• Where does he or she want to be in the short, medium and long term?

• Why did he or she run for office?

• Where can he or she realistically make an impact in Washington and back home?

A more thorough strategic planning process will also include an assessment of the Member’s positions of power (committee assignments, tenure, relationships), the strengths and opportunities to leverage, and the weaknesses and threats to manage.

After developing a shared vision — one in which the entire staff feels ownership and takes pride — then you (and hopefully the Member) should reinforce the vision through regular office-wide communications, setting individual goals that support the vision, communicating expectations for how your staff will interact as a team, recognizing and rewarding staff accordingly, and modeling the focus on the office goals.

Clearly Defined Responsibilities

Once you have established and communicated the shared vision, you are then ready to outline staff roles and responsibilities in the office. This not only includes documents like job descriptions, which ensure that the everyday business of your office runs effectively and responsibilities are not neglected, but also includes outlining for all members of your staff how they personally contribute to meeting the goals of the office.

Think back to your great team, whether a sports team or a theater group; you probably knew your own as well as everyone else’s role in making the team successful.

While clearly defined roles are essential, Hill offices sometimes go overboard in setting boundaries, therefore impeding group learning and a “pitch in— attitude that also fosters teamwork. In other words, while you should delineate roles, that shared vision should also reinforce the need to support each other in their positions even if this means stepping out of or welcoming someone else into your issue area. It is okay for one legislative assistant to cover a meeting or make a suggestion on legislation in another LA’s jurisdiction. It is okay for a caseworker to respond quickly to a question on a case in another caseworker’s specialty. Your staff members should put their own jurisdiction behind the desired outcome of high performance of the overall office and therefore must take pride in the end result.

Challenge Assumptions

The majority of conflicts in a workplace stem from misinformed assumptions and expectations. For example, if the same staffer consistently accompanies the Member to evening events, while other staffers might appreciate preserving their evenings, a newcomer may make the assumption that it is that person’s job or that the Member prefers the company of that staffer.

When an event arises that is within the new staffer’s area, he might feel unable to ask to attend in order not to cause conflict. Simply opening up opportunities to other staffers can prevent this appearance of favoritism or rigidity. Another example might be when, in the absence of a staff assistant or office manager, an LA takes on the role of managing the interns. Once the right person is hired, the LA keeps this responsibility. Assumptions about the LA hoarding responsibilities or the capabilities of the staff assistant to manage may permeate the office. Neither is true. As chief of staff, your job is to pay attention to these assumptions, challenge them, and truly open yourself to questions and suggestions from staff.

Create Opportunities for Teamwork

Have you created opportunities for your staff to learn with and from each other? When you assign tasks, are they always to one person or do you look for opportunities to create groups that together can create a better product than they would on their own?

While group projects take longer, and certainly should not be used for all tasks in an office, strategically select some longer-term projects that would benefit from multiple people and each of the skills and knowledge that the participants would bring. Engaging your staff with each other so that they appreciate each other’s perspectives and knowledge can go a long way in creating the team environment.

These engagements will increase their commitment not only to the Member but to each other, helping to drive a loyalty and commitment beyond the Member or you but to their colleagues as well.

Reward Teamwork

Do the metrics you use to determine raises and bonuses in your office reflect your value of teamwork? Which behaviors do you commend or punish? Who do you promote? For what behavior have you dismissed staffers, if at all? If the individual contributor receives the greatest number of accolades for his high productivity levels despite a “that’s not my job— or “do it yourself— attitude, you will reinforce an individualistic, as opposed to a team, ethic.

You need to walk the walk and talk the talk. There is no better way to reinforce the kind of behavior you want than through your rewards system and how you decide which staffers move up or move out of the office.

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.