Building a successful court system: It starts with the employees

February 19, 2014

govt blog 2

Success in these times demands Innovation.  Innovation is easy to aspire to and too often a lot harder to achieve. Innovation starts not with a new idea, but setting the right conditions for employee risk taking.  Risk can be scary, in part because change is not always easy.  Fear of failure or ostracism from colleagues contributes to being risk adverse.  The most effective court leaders (or law firm leaders) will challenge their court to face problems for which there are no simple painless solutions.  There really is not an option to defend every legacy practice to the end.  Panic, fear and low morale are not conditions conducive for creative change.

Worker job satisfaction is, according to many studies, at an all-time low.  Overall workforce morale hit its lowest point in a decade, according to a report that began ranking agencies on such issues in 2003.

It is not that there is a dearth of data about employee morale.  We actually know a lot.  The categories that had the biggest decreases in the federal study included pay and the second-largest drop was in opportunities for training and development.  But the biggest fault lies with leadership.

The study revealed senior federal leadership overall received a failing score from employees, with only 45.4 percent government-wide satisfaction.  There are no comparable studies of court employees, but this may well be one instance where the lack of good data just plain does not make any difference.  There is simply no reason to think eroding employee morale is a peculiar fact of federal employment.  It is a big problem in courts.

Poor communication could be not having skill, but more often it is driven by a lack of understanding trust.  Leaders earn trust; it is not a given. Trust is a willingness to be vulnerable to the actions of another; trust is some level of confidence and some degree of faith that positive expectations will be met; and trust is a belief in the goodwill of another.  Good leaders trust their colleagues and employees.

Imbalance of power and the failure to “right the balance” is a leadership problem.  Power is not a term many are comfortable using, but it is real and it drives decision making.  Where imbalance of power frequently manifests itself is in the demand for accountability.  Accountability is important, but as one commentator said, we live in an age of audit mania (the urge to have some independent inspection).   Some commentators even argue that audit mania is a virus infecting our society.  It exists, they suggest, because we no longer trust people to act for anything but their own short-term interests.

Effective leadership starts with genuinely caring about the people with whom you work.  The subject of motivation or employee morale is not clearly understood and all too frequently poorly practiced.  To understand motivation, one must understand human nature itself and therein lies the problem.  Many courts have become reasonably good at thinking about how to motivate people who appear before judges, or are eager to understand concepts like procedural fairness in the courtroom.  There is interest in how social science can assist judges in decision making.  Evidence-based sentencing and procedural fairness research are hot topics in judicial education.  What courts need to have now is evidence-based court leadership.  What courts need now is procedural fairness for the people who work in the courthouse.  Quite apart from the benefit and moral imperative of an altruistic approach to treating colleagues and employees as human beings and respecting their human dignity, all the research shows that well-motivated employees are more productive and creative.  People need positive reinforcement.  People thrive if there are high expectations.  The most successful courts are those willing, open and thinking of how to satisfy employee needs.  Then you get real innovation.