Things We Know May 2002

Things We Know: May 2002

In This Article


People at table

What works and what doesn't. A look at managing legislative staff.

By Brian Weberg

NCSL has produced volumes of information on staff structure, size, compensation, personnel policies and the issues that affect their work and workplace. It has staged hundreds of workshops and seminars on staff leadership and management. In addition, legislative staff serving on NCSL's Executive Committee conducted several projects aimed at understanding and improving legislative staff performance.

This article distills the lessons learned about staff management and managerial effectiveness from those years of experience. It summarizes what we think are the essential ingredients or predictors for successful staff organizations. You will not find much management mumbo jumbo here. Just a list of basic ideas about what works. After 25 years, these are the things we know.

Some things we cannot control. State legislatures are complicated workplaces. There are bosses everywhere: leaders, committee chairs, caucus chairs, rank-and-file members. Legislative staff have to respond to all of them with deference and skill. Of course there are staff bosses, too. Legislative agency directors, House and Senate chiefs of staff, chief clerks and secretaries of the chambers-they all weigh in on the performance and roles of legislative staff employees. Too bad that some of them receive little training on how to be an effective boss. Too bad that so many of the legislators have so little time to attend to their staff management role.

And then there are the politics. Every workplace has them, but a state legislature has politics in spades. It is, after all, a political institution. Everyone wants to play. The stakes are real and usually serious. Legislative staff, and especially those of the nonpartisan ilk, must guard against getting caught in the middle. They need to have intimate knowledge of what's going on in the political game, but they also must avoid the appearance of being prominent players.

Add to all of that the somewhat unusual conditions of employment in most state legislatures. Salary increases, promotions and advancement don't always follow a predictable path due to lack of consistent staff compensation plans or concerns about public reaction to legislative pay. It's a difficult reality for many to labor under. And the hours are often long and the work unpredictable, especially during those chaotic, but intoxicating, final weeks and days of the session. The stress is tough on families, relationships and personal health.

Multiple bosses, constant political intrigue and the unpredictable pressure cooker of session work-these are the realities of legislative life for many employees. They are facts of the legislative workplace-proverbial rocks and hard places that move only when pushed very hard and with constant effort. They can affect staff performance in significant ways, but they also are mostly immune to management fixes. Good legislative staff managers pay homage to these workplace pressures, but they also recognize their intransigent nature and focus management strategies on other goals.

Managers Should Manage

Managers in almost every type of public or private setting work their way up from a nonsupervisory "line" position. They demonstrate exceptional technical skill or special expertise until they arrive at a point in the organizational hierarchy where "management" becomes the next, and probably only, path for career advancement and promotion. Unfortunately, they often arrive unprepared to make an effective transition to the new role.

New legislative staff managers sometimes do a poor job for two key reasons. First, they often want to continue performing their previous, technical skill. They find satisfaction in their expertise and the rewards that it has brought them. They retreat to its comfort, sometimes at a cost to their new management roles. And often their staff group is so burdened with work that they must continue contributing to the production efforts of the office.

Legislative managers often get too little training about how to do the job. Few legislatures offer in-house management workshops, and other training opportunities are hard to find or tough for many legislative employees to attend. Local private sector management training can be effective, but costly. And many legislative employees discount the management principles espoused by the private sector, citing the "unique" circumstances of their public workplace. This is unfortunate. NCSL has found that almost every worthwhile private sector management practice is equally effective in the legislative setting.

Legislative managers need to take on the management role with vigor and enthusiasm. They should try to let go of most, if not all, of their former technical role in order to focus on important management responsibilities. Legislative staff who wear the management label, but do not perform the role, do a disservice to themselves and to their employees. They need to be honest about their true motivations and about where they derive real career satisfaction. Legislatures should also begin to find ways to reward, promote and retain valued technical experts who do not want traditional management responsibilities.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Communication is to management as location is to real estate. Managing is all about communication. Good managers know this. Poor ones don't. Good workplaces have lots of it. Poor workplaces don't. In NCSL's experience, almost all management failures stem from lack of effective workplace communication. The promotion of effective communication should occupy the lion's share of any manager's time and effort. No other goal matters if this one is not attended to. Stop here, do not pass GO, and do not collect $200 until the communication strategies are in place and operating.

Here are some basic ideas about what managers should do to improve communication:

Hold staff meetings that matter. People communicate best when they talk to each other in person. Personal contact builds understanding and trust, two values that promote productivity. Unfortunately, staff meetings are rare in many legislatures. Good managers get people together to share information about their work, communicate news about legislative developments and plan for future activities.

Legislative staff groups also should look for ways to meet with groups outside their own division or agency. This practice is almost nonexistent in state legislatures. Imagine a meeting during the legislative interim where a legislature's central, nonpartisan fiscal staff gets together with a House partisan caucus staff to talk about services, key fiscal issues and upcoming activities. Sound dangerous? Maybe not. These kinds of cross-agency gatherings have real potential for improving the coordination of work and fostering staff cooperation. Unfortunately, few staff groups are willing to initiate them.

Meeting for the sake of meeting can be counterproductive. It can engender cynicism or even hostility among employees who would rather use their time more productively. Effective meetings should, at a minimum, feature these characteristics:

  • Advance notice
  • A clear purpose or goal
  • On-time start
  • On-time end
  • An agenda available in advance or at the beginning of the meeting
  • Materials relevant to the discussion
  • A facilitator who manages the agenda, ensures that discussion is on point, promotes broad participation and watches the time.

Provide regular feedback to employees about their performance. NCSL has interviewed hundreds of legislative staff about workplace issues and concerns. Almost without exception, they crave feedback on their performance and express frustration at not getting enough of it. They want to know if they are doing well, if their work is on target, and if their efforts are effective and appreciated. They want to know where they need to improve. Few legislative workplaces do a very good job at communicating these messages.

Here are some ideas for creating an effective performance evaluation system:

  • Keep it simple. Avoid long, bureaucratic forms with pages of impersonal check-offs.
  • Make it routine. Establish a set time of year when evaluation discussions will be held.
  • Make it personal. Talk to each employee about expectations and performance. Don't rely on paperwork to do the job.
  • Set goals. Employee performance can only be measured against clear, mutually understood goals.
  • Train managers in the process. Make sure that evaluations are fair and consistent.
  • Connect the process to decisions about raises, promotion or termination.
  • Don't withhold feedback. Be sure that performance feedback is given frequently during the year and not saved up for the formal evaluation meeting. Don't surprise an employee with a load of unanticipated bad news. Don't make them wait for praise.

Have an open door policy. Managers need to be accessible. Due to the collegial nature of most legislative staff work, this management goal is practiced well in most states. However, NCSL worked with one legislative agency where all the employees agreed that their director had an "open door." But they were all afraid to go in there. Having an open door policy is not enough. Employees must know that when they walk through it that they will be treated with respect, courtesy and real attention.

Open doors operate in two directions. Good legislative managers walk out through their door often to talk to employees, legislators and others about matters that affect their office. Or just to get a sense of what is happening that day under the dome. Good managers stay in touch with the environment in which their employees work. Management guru Tom Peters coined the term for it: "management by walking around."

Managers must stay in touch-close to the action. For managers of nonpartisan offices it means being politically aware without being partisan-a tough tightrope to walk sometimes, but a necessary one. There are staff directors in some states known as "survivors." They have learned how to master this balance and survive shifts in partisan control and the vagaries of rotating legislative leaders. Survivors tend to work on their feet. They make connections throughout the legislature. They rarely surprise anyone. They listen. They build trust.

Be a good listener. NCSL has worked with several legislative staff groups to learn what they think are the essential qualities of a good manager. "Listening skill" always ranks high on their list. Legislative employees need to know that their ideas, concerns and opinions are registering in the manager's mind. Everyone has at one time or another acknowledged the difference between hearing and listening. Good managers work on being good listeners. They stop other activities when someone is talking to them. They ask for clarification. They restate others' thoughts to ensure shared understanding.

Some legislative staff managers use surveys or interviews to help them listen to their members. This kind of outreach solicits legislator opinion about staff performance and about ideas for potential products and services. It also helps managers see the horizon more clearly...the place where change and its challenges are beginning to take shape.

Tell it all. The "rule of no surprises" might be one of the best standards ever promoted by a legislative staff manager. Employees should not need to turn to the rumor mill to learn things that are important to their work. Managers should communicate every fact, development, schedule, decision or other knowledge about the workplace that they can without violating the law or rules of confidentiality. The more information that can be spilled out into the workplace, the better. People need to know what is going on. They deserve to know. They will find out ways to know. Better that the manager provides it first. From this approach comes trust, the mother's milk of working well together.

Walk the talk. When managers take on the managing role, they must be conscious that their actions, not words, set the tone for the office. Consistency between what managers say and what they do is critical. In today's parlance, they must walk the talk. Communication between managers and employees is not always about words. It is almost always about actions.

Respect diverse work styles. Every employee brings a unique package of learning styles, work approaches, communication preferences and career motivations to the workplace. Good managers recognize and respect these differences and are careful not to project their own set of preferences onto their employees. They emphasize productivity more than process and allow employees flexibility in the way they get the job done. The Myers-Briggs personality profile, CareerView career motivation assessment, and analyses based on generational differences are among several tools available that offer useful perspectives on how employees differ in their motivations and in their approaches to work and workplace relationships.

Let Go of Problem Children

Good managers try to raise the levels of job satisfaction, effectiveness, professionalism and productivity of all employees. They try their best to promote teamwork and establish a positive atmosphere for collaboration, communication and collegiality.

Unfortunately, some employees do not, or cannot, respond to the good efforts of their managers or the incentives offered by their workplace. They are the problem children who inhabit most offices. Some have chips on their shoulders, others have been miscast in their roles, a few are burned out and some simply cannot respond to the high expectations of legislative work. Few management challenges equal those posed by these employees, or are as potentially destructive to workplace success.

Good managers do their best to help these people succeed. They counsel them on personal issues and clarify goals. They offer employee training and professional development. They realign their responsibilities or reassign them to new tasks. Good managers care about their problem children and try to help them rejoin the team.

And when-as they sometimes do-these sincere efforts fail, good managers let go. They remember that their most productive path for making the office effective is not to save each failing employee, but to reward and attend to their superstars and to the workhorses who make positive things happen every day. Good managers document the failures of their chronic problem children and eventually get rid of them. Or if they cannot fire them, they banish them to corners of the office and the work where they cause the least harm.

Personnel Plans

Legislatures have become places where people make careers. Some amount of structure is necessary to ensure that employees clearly understand their conditions of employment. Office guidelines should describe consistently applied and legally required policies for staff conduct, hiring and firing, promotion, pay, benefits, ethics and other workplace standards. These policies and procedures should be described in a personnel manual or other document that is required reading for new employees.

Well-written personnel policies and pay plans help managers maintain equity and fairness in the office-two values that staff employees tell NCSL are critical to their job satisfaction. Good managers stick to the policies and rely on them to help resolve difficult employment problems. In addition, an effective compensation plan can help managers reward their superstars in a tangible way.

Two Final Thoughts

Good managers respond to change. All organizations rely on tradition, custom, comfort zones and history to help them stay on course and do good work. State legislatures are steeped in tradition, which serves them well. During the past decade or so, however, a storm of change has swept over the legislative landscape, as it has most public and private enterprises. These changes challenge our standard practices, our routines, our workplace assumptions and even our values. NCSL has witnessed how these changes can drive a wedge between staff and legislators.

Nonpartisan staff and their offices seem to have the toughest time responding to change. This is to be expected. Their roots run deep into the fabric of legislative tradition and history. And they usually harbor a good portion of a legislature's institutional memory. The daily effectiveness of legislatures depends in large part on these nonpartisan staff qualities.

Unfortunately, institutional momentum generated by long-held tradition, the press of daily business and by what has worked before can perpetuate the status quo and bind nonpartisan staff to procedures, practices and products that are out of sync with changing legislator needs and expectations. Good managers know this. They test the wind. They open up to new assumptions about their work. Good managers help their organizations respond to the changing landscape, to see new service opportunities and to let go of things that no longer meet their clients' needs.

Management consultant Michael Hammer summarized it best. "Working hard at the wrong thing is no virtue."

Good managers build trust. Trust may be the most valuable asset available to legislators and legislative staff managers. Without it, work becomes slower and more tedious. With it, doors open up, everything moves more quickly, and people find more pleasure in their work and in the legislative process.

Trust is a personal matter. It cannot be purchased, won or borrowed. It is built between people through their routine engagement in expressions of interpersonal fairness, honesty, loyalty and reliability. Trust is an exercise in risk, where one person allows another to control the outcome. And it is fragile. Once broken, trust is difficult to rebuild.

When there is trust between legislators and staff and between staff managers and their employees, important barriers to productivity and participation come down. Staff managers who build, maintain and foster trust allow their employees to make the most of what they have to offer legislators and the legislative process. And that is what the job of managing is all about.

Brian Weberg directs NCSL's Legislative Management Program.



Share this: 
We are the nation's most respected bipartisan organization providing states support, ideas, connections and a strong voice on Capitol Hill.

NCSL Member Toolbox


7700 East First Place
Denver, CO 80230
Tel: 303-364-7700 | Fax: 303-364-7800


444 North Capitol Street, N.W., Suite 515
Washington, D.C. 20001
Tel: 202-624-5400 | Fax: 202-737-1069

Copyright 2015 by National Conference of State Legislatures