Path Goal Theory & Motivating Interns

There’s a learning curve with every job, including learning how to master doing the ‘small things.’  From my experiences in legislative offices, work can be mundane and seem like grunt work, but taking the time to be detail oriented, to double check mail is sorted correctly, or even to become the office printer whisperer, helps gain staffer’s trust when the time comes for bigger projects or to attend interesting briefings on their behalf.  Especially for the Hill, I found that from the conversations I have had with other interns, there is a huge expectation gap for intern tasks – many interns come to the Hill expecting to write groundbreaking policy memos on the Congressperson’s preferred issue areas, and find themselves instead sorting mail and being the on the front lines of angry constituent phone calls.  This expectation gap, coupled with differences in mindsets, contribute to the divide for interns who love the environment, versus the interns who don’t find the Hill to be the right fit.  The interns who do well and come back are the ones who can connect their personal ambitions to their daily tasks, and have an aptitude to grow and challenge themselves by learning about the process, even from the ‘little things.’

Path goal theory, as described by Chemers (2000), claims that leaders exist to motivate followers to create better outcomes through their work effort.  The mechanisms to motivate followership are dependent on relating tasks to the individuals’ personal goals through different levels of directiveness and supportiveness.  With new interns, staff assistants (typically the intern coordinator) need to be nurturing and structuring to provide insight for the internal processes for how the office functions.  But when the daily tasks become engrained, staff assistant leadership directiveness lessens, giving interns more autonomy to complete letters and tasks on their own.

None of the other interns in my cohort last year wanted to come back again to intern or work on the Hill because they found they were “bored” and that their work wasn’t “challenging.”  In hindsight, our supervisor last year, Will, potentially was not as motivating or supportive of their ambitions to do “bigger” things.  Rachel, our supervisor this year, had a very different approach to leadership than Will.  Whereas Will was very hands-off, Rachel made sure to be supportive by relating to us using her past experiences as a Congressional intern, and often directive for our tasks, such as noting the proper format and language to use when we wrote constituent letters.  Rachel’s support was helpful in other ways outside of tasks – when I was nervous about being a leader in a male-dominated intern group, Rachel was extremely encouraging, and once I grew more comfortable, she trusted me to lead autonomously.  Rachel was also extremely supportive of my career ambitions to work on the Hill, and due to my experience last summer, she entrusted me to cover her role for her when she was out a few days, and for whenever she needed to step out of the office.

Path goal theory is dependent on the leader learning the follower’s personal mindsets and ambitions and observing whether they are either growth-oriented, challenge-seeking followers who are more comfortable with unstructured tasks, or change-adverse, low-growth followers who require more leadership structure (Chemers 2000). I viewed every task she gave me as a way to learn about daily job functions as either a staff assistant or legislative correspondent, which encouraged me to pay close attention to detail. As a result, when it came to tasks I completed, Rachel directiveness significantly lessened, as I typically would enjoy doing research on my own and use each opportunity to dive in deeper to the legislative process.  My coworkers were often nervous to answer the phones or had questions for how to do complete daily tasks, which is why they required a more structured work environment and guidelines to follow, whether it was by asking me or Rachel for what to do in different situations.

In Congressional offices, staffers are drawn to be public servants, and while they could make much more with their talents and writing abilities by working in the private sector, there is an affinity for the ‘warm-glow’ and the motivation to do well to play a larger role in giving back to the constituency and the nation.  For staffers, it appears the leadership from Members trickles down through each office, and the connection of the greater public service goal encourages staffers to perform their job to best represent the Congresswoman.  Leadership on the Hill is thus inherently tied to representing the people as an overarching personal ambition, even under stressful, time sensitive legislative periods when research is crammed in right before votes.