How to get the best out of office support staff

Colin, a partner in a mixed general practice, summed up one of the enduring frustrations of many of the professional people we meet in the course of our work:

“Our so-called support staff just don’t seem to have the same self-motivation to work that the partners do. It seems that somehow, support staff don’t seem to do much more than the minimum, are forever whingeing on about this and that and so we feel that we have to go around as though we are walking on egg-shells for fear of them walking out and suing us for unfair treatment. So how can you motivate someone with such an attitude problem?”

This article aims to uncover the mysteries of motivating support staff in a law firm and serves as a guide for professional people. At the outset, it is worth remembering the words of Stephen Covey, author of the Seven Habits of Effective People, who wrote: “part of the problem is the way you look at the problem.”

It has long been recognised that staff will learn, perform and develop more effectively if they are well motivated. There are some basic approaches all professional people can follow to help bring out an individual’s desire to do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.

 A dozen fundamental ways that professional people can motivate staff include:

  1. Set an excellent personal example at work – don’t be a whinger yourself.
  2. Show interest and enthusiasm in your work and the work of your team.
  3. Ensure that your staff are clear as to your expectations. Agree achievable targets, standards and time scales.
  4. Give good feedback – reward, praise and encourage good performance.
  5. Give staff help when they need it – training, advice, counselling, support and resources.
  6. Build variety and interest into work – consider job rotation.
  7. Give, or recommend staff for, more personal responsibilities when they are ready for it – look for development opportunities.
  8. Delegate effectively.
  9. Involve staff in team decisions.
  10. Share out workloads equally.
  11. Be fair and consistent in dealing with staff and deal with problems promptly and effectively.
  12. Make sure staff get the information they need – when they need it.

While quite an elementary list of actions, it is worth considering whether all those in senior positions in your firm actually live up to these basic precepts before exploring motivational approaches in more depth.

When one looks at individuals at work, we can see two separate sets of factors that influence the way a person feels about his or her job. One could make a list of all those things that make a person unhappy in the firm and a second of all those things that make people more productive. This is the basis of the so-called two-factor theory of job satisfaction.

First of all, we have dissatisfiers which affect how dissatisfied a person feels. Obviously, these play little part in motivating people. The dissatisfiers tend to be tangible issues and would include the following:

  • Pay – like not having enough for what they feel they are worth.
  • Firm’s policy – on such things as holidays, working hours, etc.
  • Level of supervision – too much or too little can have a dissatisfying effect.
  • Working conditions – such as the available workspace, room temperature and so on.
  • Relationships – whether people get on with others in their work group.

Secondly, there are those issues that are called satisfiers which are necessary to motivate people. Satisfiers are feelings or perceptions that people have about the job they are doing and how that might change over time:

  • The work itself – do they feel that they are doing worthwhile work – for them?
  • Achievement – do they have a sense of achievement in their work?
  • Recognition – does anyone notice what they do – beyond noticing when they have made a mistake?
  • Responsibility – people are generally happy to take responsibility and be relied upon to do a job well, again if they don’t fear recriminations for errors
  • Advancement – most people know how good they feel when they have mastered a new challenge.

One can consider that there is a scale running from dissatisfied through neutral to satisfied: see figure 1. Varying the dissatisfiers can alter a person’s position on the scale that runs from dissatisfied to neutral while varying the satisfiers can alter a person’s position on the scale that runs from neutral to satisfied.

If we look at the dissatisfiers first, it is noted that by removing or limiting these issues that dissatisfy people at work, the manager can reduce the amount of dissatisfaction in the firm. However, that does not necessarily mean that the workforce suddenly becomes motivated. Getting the staff to a neutral position will mean, however, that they will stay with the firm and not leave. Addressing this area alone may have a positive impact on the business – one firm we audited found that it had a 16% annual turnover of its staff. That meant that potentially 80% of their staff would change every five years, which had a significant impact on recruitment costs and stress as people came and went with all manner of staff having to provide cover – to say nothing of the effect on client care.

So, for example, dissatisfaction can be avoided by improving the environment – the benefits and working conditions. But be sensible, reasonable and keep a balance. There is no point compromising the whole firm for one person. However, no amount of improvement in limiting the dissatisfiers will motivate a person to work more effectively; for this, we need to look at the satisfiers. While more difficult to achieve, the effects of the satisfiers tend to be longer lasting than those of the dissatisfiers.

One way to view the satisfiers in a job that will lead to better performance is to consider how one can enrich someone’s job.

Job enrichment is a way to improve the work that someone does to increase satisfaction and hence motivation. Remember, it is a supplement to paying people appropriately and providing them with decent working conditions – not a substitute. It is about treating people well and giving them responsibility and recognition. It does not involve re-designing a firm or department completely since an individual, for example a supervisor, can influence them.

There are four basic approaches:

1    Give a person a complete unit of work

Rather than get someone to just mail out the client survey questionnaires, why not get them to collate the returns and prepare a provisional summary for management.

2    Give extra authority

You can delegate authority – give someone the authority to be more involved in client care – but you cannot delegate the responsibility. That rests with you.

3    Introduce new and more difficult tasks

This is only possible if people have the ability to do the task and the confidence that, if they should err, someone will back them up and sort it out for them without the fear of direct recriminations. Once these two areas are addressed, then motivation will tend to follow.

4    Give people specific or specialised tasks so that they become experts

People appreciate having the opportunity to offer something special to the work group or organisation. Maybe it is something outside the usual work activity, like being the First Aider, or perhaps the person becomes the reception champion with responsibility to make recommendations on improvements and organise its redecoration.

Figure 3 shows the cycle of effort that leads to satisfaction. It is the links that are important and it is here that managers can have an impact on an individual’s motivation.

1     Effort – Performance

There will be little motivation if this link is weak. For the link to be strong, people must believe that their efforts have a good chance of producing the desired performance. Managers need to be able to communicate what performance is required in terms that people can understand.
Four main factors affect this link:

  • Ability. If people are poorly selected or trained, they will not be able to do the job.
  • Clarity of objectives. People must know exactly what is expected of them and know whether the job is being done to the required standard.
  • Communication. Do not assume that they know what is required.
  • Resources. Materials, equipment, information, and time to do the job – time is often forgotten.

2    Performance – Outcomes

Outcomes can be desirable or undesirable. Undesirable outcomes include fatigue and loss of status.

There are two essential types of outcomes:

i)    Those that result directly from the performance and are not given by someone:

  • Self-respect
  • Sense of achievement
  • Learning something
  • Feeling of having done something worthwhile
  • Feeling of having contributed something useful
  • Fatigue – largely a negative outcome on its own.

These outcomes are more closely linked to performance as someone else does not give them. They are generated by the performance itself and are very important to create a strong Performance – Outcomes link.

Good job design or job enrichment is important here.
ii)    Those that are awarded by someone else and can be both positive as well as negative:

  • Pay
  • Other benefits such as private health care
  • Praise
  • Time off
  • Promotion
  • Status
  • Loss of pay        
  • Loss of status        
  • Social punishments    

These are less closely related to performance as they depend on someone else to give them.

For this link to be strong, the person must believe that if his performance is good, a desired outcome is likely to follow.

Managers may not be able to influence some outcomes (for example pay, promotion or time off) but they can give praise for good performance. They can also design jobs well.

3    Outcomes – Satisfaction

For this link to be strong, the outcome must be of value.

Do not assume that any given outcome is of value to all staff. Remember that people have different needs and motivations. (An increase in pay may not be of benefit to someone living at home who gives all his pay to his parents and gets a set amount of pocket money in return. He may be more appreciative of extra time off.) An outcome must be of value to the individual.

4    Feedback

Feedback is essential to motivate people to perform well. If they are never told how they are doing, they may not really know and will soon become de-motivated.

Feedback must be rapid – both positive to praise good performance and constructive to correct poor performance.

Invent occasions to give feedback if necessary, for example an informal chat with an individual. Praise in front of the individual’s peers, correct behind closed doors. Praise the individual, criticise the act.

Practice meetings can be held regularly to give feedback to a group. Feedback to a group in praise of good performance can generate good team sprit.

Just because some (or most) of your support staff do not think and behave like you, don’t despair, just remember the old adage – if you ‘assume’ you’ll make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’. In brief, get to know your people, identify and limit their dissatisfiers, look for job enrichment in their terms and ensure that rewards they value are there for better performance – these will work better than sanctions for poor performance. 

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