Effective City Council Relationships


September 21, 2022, by Katie Wittekind, Lancaster Leadership

Effective city councils are not created by accident. It is no shock to anyone that city councils often struggle with effectiveness. Not only are we trying to get often novice politicians up to speed on the needs and issues of the community, but the processes and legalities to learn are complex. To top off the challenges, there is no hierarchy on a city council, unlike many of our other societal systems.1 Instead, a functional city council depends on the collaboration and communication between the council members, the city manager, and the city staff. The relationships between the city manager, councilmembers, and staff must be resilient enough to withstand the conflict and debate that will and should arise. 

“Effective city councils are not created by accident.”

Lancaster Leadership has worked with organizations for the last ten years to improve culture and leadership among diverse teams. The following character traits and recommendations for effective councils come from research and our experience working with local governments. This article clarifies how you can create an effective to address difficult and complex decisions, so the community gets what it needs.

Top 5 traits of an effective councilmember

Anyone witness to an ineffective council can attest to the value of the following character traits. Fortunately, character traits are not as fixed as previously assumed. Research has discovered that character traits are teachable and able to be improved. 

Love of Learning

Love of learning is a valuable trait for any new council member due to the amount of complex information required to make sound decisions that impact a community. The fundamental element of this trait is the value placed upon learning new information over knowing information.  Someone who loves to learn will be more contemplative and find newly gained knowledge engaging. Increased competency and self-efficacy are associated with this trait, making it an ideal quality to improve upon for all new council members.2  The “I should know-it-all” mentality that can accompany newly elected council members can be discussed more openly by acknowledging that a love of learning is fundamental to an effective council. Someone with a love of learning is more likely to elicit an “I don’t understand, can you explain?” response.

Leadership

Lancaster Leadership defines leadership as influence. The lack of positive influence is often at the center of contention on a council. Excellent leadership is the ability to positively influence council members without bullying, manipulating, or dominating the discussion.  Council members with effective leadership traits value the relationship between council members, the city manager, and staff.2 Valuing these relations will inform the communication style and effectiveness of collaboration. 

Perspective

Perspective is the ability to see and examine all aspects of the big picture.2 An influential council member can keep sight of the big picture while considering the details and data from all sources.3 A council member lacking perspective might overly focus on single issues that create blindness to the community’s needs. Unfortunately, council members are often elected based on their stance on single issues. However, for an effective council, its members must understand that activism on a single issue differs from service on a city council.

Social Intelligence & Self Regulation

When council members show they understand how their behavior impacts others, they are demonstrating social intelligence.  People with social intelligence are more likely to be proactive rather than reactive in response. For example, social intelligence will help a council member understand that a barrage of angry emails may not represent the public opinion of the majority.2 Another closely related and much-needed trait is self-regulation, or the ability to display disciplined management of emotions and actions.2,3 A council member with social intelligence and self-regulation will know how to react with professionalism and grace even when they are on the minority end of a personally important issue. 

Judgment

This desirable trait aids the council member in putting the law, codes, and citizens above personal bias.3 In practice, someone with good judgment will weigh all aspects objectively in decision-making, including points of view that conflict with any existing personal convictions.2 Alternatively, good judgment may also show up as the willingness to stand up for decisions even when public opinion is not aligned and can defend and articulate that decision using multiple perspectives.3 

For ways to improve upon all five character strengths, take the free character strength survey at viacharacter.org.

Recommendations

Council members receive an orientation after being elected to the council. During orientation, it is essential to educate council members on the community’s current issues, the status of extended plans, capital projects, the budget process, and more. Below are recommendations of what to add to the traditional orientation.  The suggestions below set the tone and culture of the council and develop the above character traits that are fundamental to a functioning council. 

“How can I effectively and positively influence the decision-making of the other council members?”

Mentorship

With the thoughtful support of new council members, we can create effective councils. Unfortunately, much of the support for council members seems focused on educating on the complex current issues. While education on issues is fundamental to decision making, other support systems are needed to aid new council members with personal questions. Questions like, “How do I get my political agenda in front of the council?”. Or, “How can I effectively and positively influence the decision-making of the other council members?”.1 Seek out past exceptional council members to mentor the newly elected on the above questions. Mentors can provide lessons learned on how to avoid dysfunction on the council.1 Mentors can help the newly elected council members identify what positive influence looks like when serving on the council. If you don’t already, make mentorship an expected part of the orientation process. 

Strengths & Growths

Have each council member take the VIA character traits assessment. Use this opportunity to educate them on the character traits of effective council members. Each council member should identify their top five strengths and the traits to improve.  Lancaster Leadership recommends using an expert in the subject matter to facilitate the training. This process will increase the self-awareness of each council member and can be used when discussing the council member’s effectiveness. 

One-on-Ones

The city manager will likely meet one-on-one with each council member quarterly or more.1 In addition to discussing current issues, projects, and concerns, we at Lancaster Leadership recommend you use these one-on-one meetings as an opportunity for the council member and city manager to provide each other feedback on effectiveness. This feedback opportunity will build trust between the city manager and each council member, provided the feedback is utilized. 

Rules of Engagement

During orientation it is essential to co-create the rules of engagement between council members, the city manager, and staff. The rules of engagement clarify how the council will handle conflict, debate, and the method for building consensus in the non-hierarchical group.  The rules of engagement should address the following:

  • Conflict styles and how the council will respond to conflict
  • How much detail and time are needed to review topics
  • The process the council plans to use to build consensus and determine priorities
  • Share past challenges with council functionality and create a plan for effectiveness
  • How feedback will be solicited and given

Utilizing a facilitator for this process will ensure equal engagement from all parties for buy-in on the final product. 

  It is important to remember that one of the goals of a council is to create a partnership between the council members, staff, and the city manager to ensure the council is action orientated and best meets the community’s needs. When dysfunctional dynamics debilitate a council, decisions and actions risk becoming influenced by personal agendas and emotional reactions. By training council members on the essential traits for effective councils and adding the above recommendations to the orientation, debates will be more productive and decisions will honor the diverse perspectives in the room. The goal is not always to agree. The goal is to co-create a path forward, especially when we do not agree. 

Katie Wittekind is a certified coach, master facilitator, and strategist at Lancaster Leadership. Katie’s top character traits are perspective, love of learning, and creativity. She earned a master’s degree in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. She has 10+ years of leadership and government experience. Katie combines the science of positive psychology, design thinking, and habit research for an innovative approach to leadership. When not working, you can find her rock climbing in the mountains of Flagstaff, Arizona. Facilitator@LancasterLeadership.com

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