National Association of Attorneys General

National Association of Attorneys General National Association of Attorneys General

Advancing Leadership Development in the Offices of Attorneys General

I often ask supervisors in government law offices to describe managerial challenges they have faced or observed in their offices. They tell me about struggling to:

  • Supervise friends, former bosses, and co-workers who competed for the promotion
  • Improve performance and conduct
  • Motivate staff and address low morale, especially during times of transition
  • Ask others to take on more work with fewer resources
  • Resolve conflict and interact with diverse personalities
  • Re-engage senior, experienced employees
  • Build coalitions among management team members and different divisions
  • Hire and develop new employees while retaining experienced high performers
  • Adapt to changes in senior leadership, new or realigned managers, and different priorities
  • Hold everyone accountable for contributing quality work and give feedback

These challenges reflect a common theme: Influencing others to do what you need them to do because they want to do it. In other words, exercising leadership, which is the inherent accountability of all managers. Managers are charged with: deciding what needs to be accomplished (goal setting, work planning); developing staff to get the work done today and tomorrow (selecting, developing, and retaining talent); creating a motivating environment so people can do the work (identifying interests, needs, resources; matching talent to task; designing and supervising work to build in motivators and diminish dis-satisfiers); ensuring accountability (communicating expectations and standards along with frequent feedback); and leading change, often in the face of resistance. Taking on the role of a managerial leader in an attorney general’s office is difficult. It means shifting from performing “operational” work to “managerial” work, which means getting work done through the efforts of others, while remaining responsible for the results. New supervisors often receive little or no management/leadership training when promoted. Indeed, many offices view management as an “add on,” rather than a separate discipline requiring training and expertise. 

Given these realities, you may ask: How can we advance leadership development in our offices?

This article addresses three areas for consideration: (1) building a culture of leadership, (2) fostering employee engagement, and (3) embracing change, and it suggests practices and behaviors to help meet related managerial challenges.

Build a Culture of Leadership

Leadership development requires organizational and individual change. Leadership must be valued as important to achieving the mission and acknowledged as a discipline separate and apart from managing the operational work of the office. This often means changing the organizational culture (the norms of behavior, shared expectations, and relationships among members of an organization that distinguishes it from others and shapes how people act).1 

A critical step in building a culture of leadership is to instill the value of leadership at all levels of the organization. Research informs that cultivating leadership throughout an organization results in increased performance because leadership behavior promotes self-management, peer accountability, motivation, retention, and delegation.2 Leadership is not a position or title. It is not about power. It is not a gene. Leadership is about relationships and involves a set of learned skills and behaviors.3 Senior management must make exercising leadership an expectation for everyone in the office and provide opportunities for both managers and staff to develop leadership skills and practices. Indeed, “leaders do not create more followers they create more leaders.4

This approach is particularly important in government law offices where demands are frequently driven by unpredictable and uncontrollable external events. Everyone in the organization needs to be able to communicate effectively, manage conflict, influence the behavior of others, and regulate emotions. The point is to consciously develop and rely on leaders as they emerge within the office.

Management Behavior That Contributes to Building a Culture of Leadership

  • Bring up leadership topics at meetings and talk about what it means to take on a leadership role
  • Take advantage of management/leadership training opportunities
  • Create opportunities for those who attend training to apply and share what they learned
  • Ask for input and acknowledge staff contributions
  • Look to different team members to take on diverse responsibilities and leadership functions
  • Expect others to step up and be relied upon to assume a leadership role

Foster Employee Engagement

Engagement can be defined as the point where individual and organizational needs align. It has also been described as an employee’s connection and commitment to the organization.5 Sadly, engagement among workers in the United States is reportedly at 30 percent, which means that seven out of every 10 workers are checked out. Disengagement is linked directly to low performance, high turnover, and decreased productivity.6 

Most offices appreciate the importance of an engaged workforce and, from time to time, senior leadership initiates attempts to introduce quick fixes when they sense work is being impacted by low morale. Some sponsor events intended to serve as teambuilding or morale boosters. Others offer environmental rewards such as dress down days or special day celebrations. These efforts may improve short-term employee satisfaction, but they lack a sustained effect on motivation or performance, in part because motivation is not a cognitive issue alone. It involves emotions and relationships. Managers rarely have success in getting employees excited about their work by appealing to reason or offering short-term incentives. Employee level of engagement is connected to how the employees feel about the work they are asked to do, and how they feel about themselves while performing the work.7

Factors that contribute to engagement from the employee’s perspective include: strong relationships with co-workers and immediate supervisors; opportunities to use one’s skills and abilities and to perform meaningful work that is valued and contributes to the mission; and ongoing communication between employees and senior leadership. On the other hand, employees demonstrate apathy, disinterest, negativity, higher absenteeism, and frequent complaints when they feel and believe that

they are overextended because of increased work and reduced resources; their work is unappreciated and their contribution undervalued; managers overtly or indirectly dismiss their input; expectations are unclear and they are blamed when goals are not met; managers display favoritism, impose unequal standards, and foster competition rather than cooperation among team members; and management withholds information or provides it to some and not others, which signals distrust.8

Against this backdrop, what can be done to more effectively engage employees? We begin by asking the timeless question: What drives human behavior? The 20th century model was based on two drives, pleasure or pain, which translated in the workplace to rewarding desirable behavior and sanctioning the undesirable. This “carrot/stick” approach worked for routine, unchallenging, and highly-controlled tasks where processes were straightforward, without the need for creative thinking or innovation. As a result, rewards provided motivation without harmful side effects. As work became more complex, challenging, and technologically provocative, the reward theory resulted in short-term thinking, more unethical behavior, lower performance, and diminished creativity. 

Before long, the negative side effects of extrinsic motivation far outweighed the benefits, and the paradigm shifted.9 It became clear that employees were more engaged when given responsibility and authority that required judgment. They also responded positively when given challenging work, social support, and feedback that resulted in growth and improvement.10 

By the mid to late 20th century, it became clear to social scientists that there was a third powerful drive, the joy of doing the task itself. Further research validated that employee engagement increases when management provides work opportunities that focus on an individual’s need to self-direct (autonomy), to learn and develop new skills and abilities (mastery), and to connect the work with making a difference (purpose).11 Employees who take ownership of their work and feel what they are doing matters are far more likely than others to feel engaged on the job. 

As a practical matter, the self-determination approach focuses on results-based work, not a time clock, which allows employees flexibility; the work that needs to be done, rather than “how” to perform the assigned task, which permits the employees the discretion to determine how they will accomplish the goal without technical supervision (micromanagement) or mandated procedures; and employee participation in identifying desired areas of work or projects in addition to routinely assigned work, as well as employee involvement in assembling their own work groups and teams.

Creating an environment of self-management also triggers employee engagement, particularly in government law offices where there is a heightened need for adaptability. Senior leadership often struggles with finding the right balance between adhering to well-established procedures to ensure operational steadiness and providing flexibility to respond to current trends. Self-management can bridge the gap. The idea of self-management is not new.12 Self-managed teams took popular form in the 1970s and 1980s, becoming the framework for task forces in the 1990s. The model is characterized by employee involvement in assembling team members, monitoring individual and group performance, and modifying how work is performed to meet changing conditions. The current trend has expanded to self-managed organizations, where employees have authority to set goals, exercise discretion over the use of resources to meet those goals, maintain access to information related to the work, and share accountability for results.

Recently published findings from a decade of neuro-scientific research support the conclusion that high trust in an organization significantly impacts employee engagement and, therefore, overall work performance in a meaningful way, over time. After scientific studies confirmed that the brain chemical oxytocin in animals was shown to signal safe approach, scientists explored the theory in humans. Carefully controlled trust experiments involved scientists monitoring levels of oxytocin in participants as they chose an amount of money to send to strangers electronically, knowing the money would increase over time, and that the recipients might or might not share the proceeds with the sender. The researchers found that participants who produced more oxytocin sent more money and the amount of oxytocin produced predicted how trustworthy the participants would likely be. High amounts of oxytocin appeared to reduce the fear of trusting a stranger. Years of continued scientific experiments revealed information about trust variations among individuals and situations. Research continued outside the laboratory, where scientists measured oxytocin as it related to employee productivity and innovation. These outcomes combined with the results of a survey used in thousands of organizations ultimately led to guidance for managers connecting behaviors for building trust with employee engagement and resulting higher performance.13

Management Behavior That Fosters Employee Engagement

  • Hire candidates with the right skills for the position so they can succeed in accomplishing the work. Invest in developing the skills set of existing employees to bring them to the next level where they can take on different or more complex work.
  • Know your people to learn what matters to them and to understand what engages them. Treat everyone fairly but not the same. Avoid giving the same opportunities or challenges to everyone.14 For example, one person might not need structure because she provides it for herself, whereas another looks to you to provide it.
  • Rather than focusing on why employees are not engaged, observe your most engaged employees to figure out what works and replicate that model.
  • Distribute challenging work that is viewed as worthwhile.
  • Encourage people to share positive experiences, exchange ideas, and disseminate best practices, which supports peer collaboration and counters individual complacency or negativity.
  • Give people something to work toward that matters by identifying a purpose that is more important than the individual benefit. For example, for an employee nearing retirement it may be leaving a legacy or for a contrarian it may be proving critics wrong.
  • Provide direction and information frequently about senior leadership’s vision, strategies, and initiatives. At every meeting and in every communication, address the work being done and talk about its impact on the mission. Expressions of openness and frequent communication reduce uncertainty while also increasing credibility and trust. To the contrary, guarded sharing of information or perceived secretiveness causes stress and undermines trust. Daily communication with direct reports improves engagement.
  • Reward first line managers for inspiring their employees. Engagement is linked to a managerial leader’s ability to inspire others much more than it is related to the manager’s skill or effectiveness in assigning and managing tasks.
  • Expect employees to take initiative in identifying desired areas of work in addition to routine assignments. This practice focuses on an individual’s need to self-direct how they can best contribute. When employees are asked and trusted to tell managers the work that interests them the most, or where they believe their strengths lie, the employee becomes a partner in designing the work plan and becomes more invested in successfully meeting performance outcomes.
  • Display vulnerability by seeking counsel, asking for help, and relying on team members and subordinates. It builds credibility, increases trust, and furthers leadership development. When seeking input, invite both reinforcing and challenging views. 
  • Model integrity in day-to-day behaviors, with no “say-do” gap.
  • Acknowledge and use the experience and institutional knowledge of senior employees by consulting with them and relying on them to take the lead in meeting established goals.
  • Team seasoned and novice employees because it helps both perform better.
  • Give employees (especially high performers) the opportunity to exercise discretion in how they complete assigned work. This behavior signals that management trusts and relies upon them to figure out how to get the work done. The value of giving a high performing employee an opportunity to self-direct cannot be overemphasized. Framing assignments from the viewpoint of what the high performer can learn will also make a difference. Autonomy bolsters innovation and cooperation among diverse people when they can offer different methods to accomplish the task. This is a powerful tool when supervising younger employees because they are less bound by organizational mantras such as: “This is how we usually do it, or that won’t work here.”
  • Share continuous feedback (especially with high performers) to ensure employees feel their work and effort is appreciated. Likewise, provide constructive criticism when accurate and necessary because it shows an interest in the employee’s growth.
  • Dispel average thinking and set the bar high by giving challenging, stressful, and achievable tasks to teams, which intensifies the members’ focus and fortifies social bonds that enhances their ability to work together and trust one another to get the job done.
  • Encourage peer recognition of employees immediately after meeting a goal in a tangible and unexpected way. This practice celebrates success, inspires striving for excellence, and supports group gain through the efforts of individuals which strengthens trust.
  • Support strong social relationships at work, which are directly aligned with high work performance. Those who connect with others earn the trust of their peers and become more productive individually and collectively. Work-related social activities (even if forced at the start) can facilitate people building connections.

Embrace Change

A third suggestion for advancing leadership development in your office is to embrace change. The culture of the government law office is characterized by change. Transition in senior leadership is institutionalized. People routinely deal with personnel changes (new hires and realigned managers), different operational processes and systems, new technologies, and the redistribution of limited resources resulting from changes in the nature and scope of the work. The future direction of the office may be unclear. Accepting a different vision can be both cognitively and emotionally difficult. Critical factors affecting acceptance include whether the people value what is being described as important and whether they can see a benefit to them, their work, and the mission.

It is important to remember that change, even when welcomed, is stressful because it always involves moving away from the familiar. People experience anxiety, with feelings of loss, fear, or uncertainty about what is to come. Responding to change frequently triggers strong emotions, rigidity, and resistance which can be demonstrated by silence, hostility, malevolent obedience, or confusion. Managers have an especially challenging role in leading themselves and others through a constantly changing landscape. How managers react and interact with subordinates during this time can significantly impact levels of trust and credibility, potentially harming work performance, as well as relationships. Likewise, managers can act to build trust and effect a smooth, positive transition to the new environment.

Managerial Behavior That Embraces Change

  • Reframe how change is approached. Identify how the change may have a positive impact on the office systems, operations, workload, and employees and can result in opportunities for growth. 
  • Approach leading change as a process by taking the following steps:15
  • Explain the reason for the change, creating a sense of urgency
  • Describe what success looks like, especially if successful elsewhere
  • Mobilize support; anticipate potential resisters, how they will act, the impact of their behavior, and how to overcome their resistance
  • Celebrate success along the way
  • Monitor progress, acknowledge missteps and adjust as necessary

Be mindful of potential obstacles to change efforts and contemplate ways to overcome them:16

  • Inadequate leadership, where the direction, strategies, or roles are unclear.
  • Boss barriers exist when someone in the management chain has not committed to the change and suggests overtly or subtly that it is foolish, unnecessary, or doomed to fail. This can be a silent killer because employees are apprehensive to disagree openly with management. It can, however, present an opportunity to “lead up” by focusing on the benefits of the change.
  • System barriers are associated with established rules, procedures, bureaucracies, or existing culture that contravene proposed changes. It is helpful to identify people in the office with change experience and who know how to work around system barriers.
  • Mind barriers internalize a deep feeling that change is impossible. It becomes a mental block and disempowers action. An equally powerful force is the power of creative people to help others see possibilities becoming reality. Tell positive change stories, rather than conversations that retell failures. The “I survived, so you can too” approach is also useful.
  • Information barriers can freeze movement because information is a source of power and lack of information disempowers. Providing accurate, necessary feedback that informs helps people make decisions. Share as much information as you can; be honest; do not avoid reality. Remember: Bad news does not get better with age.
  • Demonstrate resilience, which is the physical, cognitive, emotional, and psychological capacity to
  • adapt to disruption and bounce back from adversity. Behaviors that build resilience include:
  • Offering and accepting help; relying on strong relationships and support systems
  • Engaging in physical activity; showing a healthy sense of humor
  • Accepting the reality of the situation and looking for constructive ways to deal with it
  • Committing to find something interesting and worthwhile in the work you are doing
  • Avoid looking at the worst-case scenario or catastrophizing
  • Over communicate. Conduct all hands meetings, explain the vision, plans, strategies, rationale behind decisions that impact staff, and give progress updates along the way. Acknowledge that change is difficult.

The Experience of One Attorney General’s Office in Advancing Leadership Development

The Tennessee Attorney General’s Office (the Office) took advantage of resources provided by NAAG to strengthen its office management structure, processes, and environment. By utilizing the results of a NAAG management review as an opportunity for growth along with subsequent management training and a facilitated strategic planning workshop provided through the NAGTRI Center for Leadership Development, the office reorganized its management structure, integrated personnel into new roles, and introduced revised systems, all of which exemplify building a leadership culture, fostering engagement, and embracing change.

At the attorney general’s request, NAAG conducted an office management review. Taking the information and suggestions provided, the Office created mid-level manager positions (senior deputies), and existing divisions, supervised by deputies, were grouped into sections. Each section was to be led by a newly-appointed senior deputy. Several deputies were promoted to the new positions, which left vacancies at the deputy level. The management restructure also envisioned that the senior deputies would form a management team and promote a cohesive, integrated culture among all divisions and sections. The Office embraced this structural and cultural change. Managers identified critical points to implement the reorganization: Fill vacant management positions by hiring or promoting competent candidates and integrating them into the office; clarify managerial roles, functions, expectations, responsibilities, and levels of authority; draft position descriptions and work plans; institutionalize lines of communication; assess the environment and address process failures to introduce more efficient systems.

The Office experienced related transitions over the past two years. The long-serving chief deputy retired and a new chief deputy from outside the office was appointed; offices moved; and new telephone and case management systems were introduced, along with revised performance evaluations.

The management restructure significantly impacted roles and accountabilities, relationships, communications, work flow processes, and norms of behavior in the office. For example, the relationship between the deputies and front office changed. Division deputies no longer directly reported to the chief deputy. Having different reporting lines impacts the culture of the office.

Senior deputies participated in a NAGTRI facilitated workshop to draft a strategic plan that would effectuate the structural, personnel, and cultural changes and realize the vision of a cohesive, effective and engaged office. They are working to define managerial roles and functions, organize work flow processes, introduce new systems, ensure an engaging environment, prepare for succession planning, and integrate mid-level managers into the Office culture. Continuing these efforts will serve to advance leadership development in the Office.

Resource for AG Offices

The NAGTRI Center for Leadership Development is committed to supporting the managerial work of the attorney general community.

Learning and development opportunities are designed for participants to acquire the knowledge, skills, and behaviors needed to serve as effective managerial leaders. The Center’s holistic approach provides a curriculum of core competencies and focused practice skills along with customized programs to meet specific office needs. Training and facilitation resources are also available to assist offices in implementing recommendations from NAAG management reviews.

Endnotes

1Edgar H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership (4th ed. 2010).

2Noel Tichy, Succession: Mastering the Make or Break Process of Leadership Transition (2014).

3James Kouzes James & Barry Posner, A Leader’s Legacy (2006).

4U.S. Army, Be.Know.Do. Leadership the Army Way (2004).

5Jim Loehr & Tony Schwartz, The Power of Full Engagement (2005).

6Susan David, Disengaged Employees? Do Something About It, Harv. Bus. Rev. (July 2013).

7Peter Daly, Cate Reavis, & Michael Watkins, The First 90 Days in Government: Critical Success Strategies for New Public Managers at All Levels (2009).

8Stewart Liff, Managing Government Employees (2007).

9Williams, Ray, Carrot and Stick Motivation: Revisited by New Research Psychology Today, HealthProofs.com, posted November 2013.

10Frederick Herzberg, Bernard Mausner, & Barbara Snyderman Bloch, The Motivation to Work(2011).

11Daniel Pink, Drive (1995).

12J. Richard Hackman, The Psychology of Self-Management in Organizations (1986).

13Paul J. Zak, The Neuroscience of Trust, Management Behaviors that Foster Employee Engagement, Harv. Bus. Rev. Jan.-Feb. 2017.

14Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman, FIRST, Break All The Rules (1999).

15John P. Kotter, The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations (2002) and

Leading Change (1996).

16John P. Kotter & Dan S. Cohen, Creative Ways to Empower Action to Change The Organization: Cases in Point, J. Organizational Excellence (Winter 2002).

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Karl A. Racine, District of Columbia Attorney General

Karl A. Racine is the District of Columbia attorney general.