Investing in People? The Choice is yours! an alternative view of what makes a successful council

By Ian Morris.

Shortly after reading Mel Usher’s excellent 28th February blog on this site I was pondering his useful distinction between the external context and internal roles of staff and councillors and wondering whether these very real structural and cultural distinctions were sufficient to explain some of the day to day challenges that I experience as Chief Officer of a large-ish (£2.8million annual turnover) Town Council.

To a certain extent they do. And while Mel’s insights are useful in helping us to better understand the symbiosis of the roles at a meta-level,  it is also useful to think about how individual councillors and officers’ personal choices and levels of motivation and behaviour impact on these complex social systems that we call councils.

I was drawn to a model that we used recently in some intensive training for our Senior Management Team prior to the launch of our new Appraisal and Development process. 

The Personal Investment Model was developed by Maehr & Breskamp[1] in the mid-80s and is based on the fundamental principle of people making choices in their lives depending on the meaning that those choices have for them.  After all, what are those behaviours in our Local Councils – good or bad – if not the products of choices by the individuals concerned?!

Within this model, my ‘personal investment’ is an aggregate of my performance, intensity of behaviour, persistence of patterns of behaviour, and my choices to become engaged in, or withdraw from, specific activities.  The model also asserts that meaning and motivation are  intrinsically linked; that the meaning that I attribute to a particular situation determines my personal investment in that situation and drives my behaviour during it.

Great.  But how does this help is understand what makes successful ( or unsuccessful) councils tick?

Well, here’s a visual interpretation of the model that starts to help us with that understanding:

Figure 1: illustration of Maehr & Braskamp (1986) Personal Investment Model, taken from the authors notes from a training session delivered by footprint learning & development, January 2019

In this matrix, Attitude is our mindset or mental approach to a given situation.  We can choose to have a positive or negative attitude in a given situation, although much of the time those attitudes are so entrenched in our values, beliefs and patterns of behaviour that they may not be conscious decisions.  By contrast, energy refers to how much effort we chose to put into a given situation.

Now I don’t know about you, Dear Reader, but if you are anything like me your attitude and energy will fluctuate on a daily basis!  But, the point here is that our attitude and energy will oscillate around a mean position, and the products of our mean attitude and energy levels can be a useful way of understanding our likely behaviours at work.

Do you recognise any of these personality types in yourself, or your councillor or staff colleagues?

Victims (low energy, negative attitude) – tend to feel unhappy, overwhelmed and fearful.. They tend to slink away from problems, avoid confrontation, resist taking responsibility and do the bare minimum that they need to do to survive in their roles.

Cynics – (high energy, negative attitude) – tend to feel left out, rebellious, that they are right and the world is conspiring against them, and over confident in their own ability.   They tend to express their frustration openly, always see the negative and are often oblivious to the consequences of their negativity on others.

Spectators (low energy, positive attitude) – tend to feel positive about what is happening but lack confidence to make a contribution.  They may feel unwilling to take risks and are more comfortable watching from the sidelines.  They tend to acknowledge the good ideas of others but are unwilling to change themselves, keep a low profile during change hoping that it will all blow over and they can just get back to repeating their previous ways of doing things.

Performers (high energy, positive attitude) – tend to feel comfortable with the need change, and open to possibilities and the suggestions to others.  They are generally optimistic about the future and in control of their own destiny.  They tend to view ambiguity and change as an opportunity, appreciate and use humour in their interactions with others, and treat life as a whole (not just work) as a continuous learning experience.

I could (and maybe will!) write another whole blog about how best to deal with these different personas at work, but for now I’ll leave with the suggestion that you can help your cynics become performers by harnessing their energy but helping alter their attitude through aligning their values and beliefs with that of the council (try clear boundaries and rules, behavioural competencies, and reflecting the impact of their negative behaviour on others); and you can help spectators become performers by supporting their positive attitude while supporting and building their confidence (try mentoring, and plenty of feedback and positive reinforcement).  And the victims?  Well there’s one school of thought to say that they need to be managed out of the organisation, which is easy enough for paid staff but not really practical with Councillors! So, where are you on this scale today?  And where are you as a team of staff and councillors working together in your local council?

[1] Maehr, ML & Braskamp, LA (1986) The motivation factor: A theory of persona investment Lexington, MA: Heath & Co R

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