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Building staff engagement

Building staff engagement

By Kath McCarthy

Practice Management Workplace 


Effective people management is enhanced by the capacity to leverage the intrinsic motivators of mastery, purpose and autonomy to drive higher levels of staff engagement.


  • Getting the best from your staff is more about tapping into internal motivators than external rewards.
  • Knowing how to support a sense of competence, autonomy and connection in your staff is particularly important.
  • Prioritising trust within your teams and with your staff is a foundation of effective leadership.

An engaged staff member is sufficiently connected to work, the people they work with or the firm they belong to, that they are more likely to persist, remain loyal and contribute discretionary effort. Engagement is one of the most significant predictors of organisational success. While many firms still rely heavily on extrinsic rewards like pay and promotion to drive performance, engagement is more effectively built by focusing on intrinsic sources of motivation in staff. This translates into managers supporting a sense of competence, purpose and autonomy in their staff.

Employee engagement is a key driver of business success. A firm with a highly engaged workforce is likely to report higher client rating, higher profit and productivity, lower turnover, and lower absenteeism.1 A law practice is an environment which requires non routine tasks and complex cognitive capacity and so engagement is not strongly correlated with tangible rewards like bonuses and high salary. In fact, at times, higher extrinsic rewards in such environments, perversely lead to lower levels of performance.2 Engagement is often more closely linked with:

  • accomplishment, competence and mastery
  • purpose, meaning and connection
  • empowerment, freedom and choice.3

To drive higher organisational performance, managers need to foster the conditions that lead to higher levels of engagement.

Supporting a sense of competence

Services offered by a lawyer require an elevated degree of analytical ability, carry substantial cognitive load, involve complex decision-making and require advanced problem solving capacity. For many, the practice of law presents so many opportunities for intellectual challenge, that the work itself is innately motivating. This is particularly experienced when the individual solicitor perceives a match between the challenge presented by a particular file and their capacity to meet that challenge.4 A manager has a role in knowing enough about the skill and resources of their staff and the work being performed to monitor and facilitate this matching process.

However, at times the capacity to match skill with challenge can be elusive. Workload may be too high. Experience may be lacking. A file may be too complex. At such times it can be difficult for the lawyer to know what to do or how to do it. Therefore, one of the primary tasks of a manager is to provide clarity about when and how to focus attention.5 Role clarity is supported when a staff member clearly understands:

  • their degree of decision-making latitude
  • what they are and are not responsible for
  • what success looks like and how it will be measured
  • who needs to be informed or consulted on an issue
  • how and when consultation should occur
  • how their role intersects with other roles in the firm
  • how a discrete piece of work fits into the overall file strategy.

When these questions are answered, staff will have better clarity about where they need to focus their attention, what competence looks like and how to achieve this. A manager interested in building engagement has a role in ensuring this clarity is provided.

Once the role is clear, engagement is enhanced by skills acquisition. This in turn is often mediated by a manager’s capacity to provide effective performance feedback. The ability to provide feedback is an undervalued skill. To be supportive of engagement, feedback must be capable of assisting a staff member assess the impact or consequence of efforts as a measure of increasing mastery. To be effective it needs to be balanced, specific and timely. It is not an opportunity to vent the manager’s frustration. Ideally, it is also non-judgmental and non-threatening.6 Managers who master the skill of providing clear, supportive developmental feedback, will usually be rewarded by higher levels of staff engagement.


  • Give feedback about what is working, as well as what is not.
  • Ensure feedback is specific (ie, avoid unhelpful and vague descriptions like “good”, “bad”, “substandard”, “incomplete”, “superficial” and “off the mark”).
  • Give feedback shortly after the event, not only at an end of year performance review.
  • Try an SBI formula when providing feedback – Situation (what is context), Behaviour (specific observation) and Impact (consequences of behaviour).
  • Look for signs of boredom – this may indicate a need to increase the staff member’s perception of challenge.
  • Look for signs of anxiety – this may indicate a need to bolster the staff member’s skill, capacity or role clarity.
  • Look for opportunities to allow a staff member to train towards greater levels of mastery.
  • Help a staff member find measures of progress and provide feedback mechanisms that will help them assess progress.
  • Set high expectations and have confidence the staff member will meet them.

Supporting a sense of autonomy

People are innately oriented towards self-direction. An effective people manager will avoid stifling a staff member’s sense of control, and proactively look for opportunities to support choice. This includes choice over task and over time. The billable hour, where staff members must account for each six-minute unit of their day, remains a feature of legal practice that is not supportive of autonomy over time, and often has the unintended consequence of undermining motivation.7 Managers should actively look for opportunities for empowerment over time wherever possible. Similarly, managers should provide as much decision-making latitude as the task or file allows. It does not mean delegating all responsibility and accountability. The complex matrix of interests that underpins a successful firm will mean the manager will need to set clear expectations about what are “successful” results and holding people to account for achieving these results.8 However, at the same time such managers can provide freedom of choice about which tasks are prioritised, how time is used, and what methods are employed in order to meet expectations and produce results. This means avoiding an urge to micromanage, particularly one that emanates from their own need to achieve their personal version of perfection. A staff member who perceives that they have influence and control over their work will reward their firm with greater effort, persistence and commitment.9 Managers, therefore, should strive to actively support a sense of personal sovereignty in their staff.


  • Involve your team in goal setting – not just how to achieve goals but also which clients to focus on, what KPIs are the best measure, what success looks like, who should do what, and when it should be done.
  • Hold back from providing quick answers and coach your staff member to think for themselves.
  • Provide enough information to support informed decision-making. This may mean providing feedback about their impact or providing insight into organisational dynamics.
  • Encourage your staff member to “risk manage” their own decision-making.
  • Assign the end not the means.
  • Wherever possible support flexibility in work arrangements to allow maximum choice for your staff.

Supporting a sense of purpose and connection

When people are supported to use their skills and make decisions in service of an objective that is larger than their own self-interest, higher performance is often a natural by-product. Effective leaders recognise opportunities for staff members to draw on this form of motivation. Making money for themselves or profit for the firm is rarely a sustaining motivator.10 Effective managers will help their staff identify other ways to align their efforts with a higher sense of meaning. It may involve being connected with their practice group. It may also involve exploring ways their work gives back to society or serves the interests of justice. It will certainly involve framing ethical responsibility as more than a risk management consideration, but characterising it as a path to excellence in professional service.

Should the search for higher purpose in work be elusive, managers can find other ways to connect with their staff’s sense of meaning and purpose. It may involve genuinely connecting work with the staff member’s values. This could mean ensuring work supports a staff member’s family, volunteer work or religious practices, for example. It may mean supporting a staff member’s sense of connection with the broader profession, mentoring junior staff, forming close working relationships with peers, or connecting with the values of the firm. Staff members who can experience a workplace aligned to what is important to them will be more engaged and, therefore, more motivated to perform.

A manager can also have a substantial impact on engagement by tending to the quality of his or her interpersonal relationship with each staff member. The degree a staff member feels they can trust their manager often mediates their level of engagement with the workplace.11 It is useful to think about this process of making deposits or withdrawals into a “trust” bank with each staff member, with the goal of ensuring the bank balance remains in credit. Trust is supported by focusing on four aspects of your relationship with each staff member:

  • consistently meeting and managing expectations and promises
  • having a rapport, if not close ties with them
  • modeling preferred behaviours
  • ensuring transparency in motivation12
  • Trust can be diminished when a staff member feels judged, excluded, criticised or disempowered. Managers should prioritise the cultivation of trust if they wish to build staff engagement.


  • Help your staff link what’s important to them personally with the practice group’s goals.
  • Prioritise a positive team environment that creates opportunities for personal connection between colleagues.
  • Consistently demonstrate courtesy and a disposition of respect.
  • Encourage connection with the broader profession.
  • Appreciate and celebrate your staff member’s competencies, strengths and successes.
  • Develop a joint team goal or mission statement with your team. This will help your team align their personal drivers with each other and with the practice group’s direction.
  • Find narratives that explore and explain the link between the work done by the firm with a greater good in society.
  • Explain how the file, the client and the practice group fit into the larger firm.
  • When painting a picture of what you want, be prepared to answer three basic questions – Why? Why now? How will success be measured?
  • Focus on building and maintaining high levels of interpersonal trust with staff and reducing perceptions of threat.

Building staff engagement is one of the cornerstones to effective people management. This means relying less on external motivators such as pay rises and promotions as the primary motivator, and actively looking for opportunities to support a sense of increasing mastery, empowerment, and a connection with something beyond merely making money or achieving budget. This will tap into the intrinsic motivation of staff members more effectively and build a more engaged and productive workforce.


Kath McCarthy is a registered psychologist and principal consultant at Metis Pathways. She is an experienced consultant, facilitator and executive coach. She practiced law for more than 15 years and now supports law firms to create more effective and higher functioning work environments.

This special edition of the LIJ examines practice management areas covered in the LIV’s new practice management course starting this month. For more information on the practice management course, see here


1. Sorenson, S, “How Employee Engagement Drives Growth” in Gallup Business Journal, June 2013.

2. Ryan, RM and Deci, EL, (2017) Self-Determination Theory Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness, 2017, Guilford Press. New York. While self-determination theory is strongly evidence based, other motivational theories can aid managers in driving engagement including, inter alia, Hertzberg’s (1968) two factor model, Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs, Fistinger’s (1968) cognitive dissonance theory.

3. Note 2 above.

4. Czikszentmihilyi, M, Flow, 2002, Harper and Row. New York.

5. Clough, P and Strycharczyk, D, Developing Mental Toughness, 2012, Kogan Page Limited, UK.

6. Glaser, JE, Conversational Intelligence, 2013, Bibliomotion. USA.

7. Note 2 above.

8. Note 5 above.

9. Note 2 above.

10. Note 2 above.

11. Note 6 above.

12. Note 6 above and Watkins, A, Coherence, 2014, Kogan Page Limited. UK.


Disclaimer: Views expressed by commentators are not necessarily endorsed by the Law Institute of Victoria Ltd (LIV). No responsibility is accepted by the LIV for the accuracy of information contained in the comments and the LIV expressly disclaims any liability for, with respect to or arising from any such views.

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