Leaders are under constant pressure to optimize their return on everything. Yet research confirms that, every day, an organization’s most precious natural resource — its people — underperforms. However, leaders do not have to accept the discretionary effort gap that plagues organizations, hurts productivity and undermines success as inevitable.
Discretionary effort is the difference between the effort an employee is capable of bringing to a task and the effort required just to get by. According to 2012 Impact Achievement Group research, “The average American employee feels that the effort a person has to give in order to keep his or her paycheck is about 70 percent of what they feel they could be giving.” Leadership IQ research from the same year indicated 72 percent of employees polled admitted they aren’t giving their best effort. In the same study, 77 percent of their managers agreed.
There’s a disconnect between what employees are capable of and what many deliver. It’s time to address this gap head-on, and learning and development is uniquely positioned to do so. Which function is better suited to build and leverage organization-wide capacity, inspire and enable expanded performance, and foster an environment that supports the stamina and resilience required for sustained results?
Learning and development departments committed to helping tap discretionary effort do four things differently.
1. Prepare Everyone to Excel: How many superior individual contributors has your organization promoted to the ranks of supervisor only to have them crash and burn because they weren’t ready? What’s the effect on their employees? What’s the effect on them?
Timing is everything. Despite decades of experience and evidence to the contrary, many leaders still think it’s acceptable to promote people into roles and then train them. But the “pre” in “prepare” is there for a reason. Closing the discretionary effort gap means getting ahead of the curve, figuring out what people need next and offering it before “just in time,” and before it’s too late to build the confidence, motivation and results that inspire employees to give their all.
2. No More Carrot and Stick: The discretionary effort employees withhold is like a trump card held close to the vest, giving employees a sense of control in a constantly shifting workplace. Choosing to tap into that reservoir of effort is a personal choice.
Yet, many organizations still try to coax discretionary effort out of people using only moderately effective carrot-and-stick methods. Workshops in these methods are still a mainstay in many training catalogs. Instead, organizations and the managers within them should focus on building a work environment that makes it easy for people to choose to activate extra effort rather than hide it, creating a work environment that supports a heightened sense of internal motivation and personal initiative.
Research tells us that managers play a central role. University of Rochester professors Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, authors of an article titled “Intrinsic Need Satisfaction: A Motivational Basis of Performance and Well-Being in Two Work Settings,” discovered years ago that people are more internally motivated when managers create conditions where three fundamental psychological needs are met: Employees want to feel competent, experience autonomy and have a sense of relatedness with others born out of mutual respect. People are much more willing to tap into discretionary effort when they have the chance to satisfy these needs.
In the 2011 book “The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement and Creativity at Work,” authors Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer validated that despite what most managers think, reinforcers such as recognition are not nearly as important as progress. People are willing to sustain considerable effort when they feel they’re making headway in their jobs. When they feel stuck, effort suffers.
Despite the accessibility of this research, it’s been slow to take hold in leadership development curricula. Learning executives can help managers shift their mindsets away from relying on rewards and consequences by providing the coaching and interpersonal skills they need to tap direct reports’ internal motivation and the discretionary effort that follows.
3. Move From Mouthpiece to Hearing Aid: Author and business strategist Frederick Reichheld once said, “If employees feel like they are throwing pennies down a well and they never hear a splash, they are going to stop throwing the pennies. We have got to show them that we are listening.”
This quote epitomizes the discretionary effort problem. During the past several decades, the learning function has honed its delivery methods and become increasingly adept at imparting the critical information employees need. But what about listening?
For example, consider Tenaris, a supplier of tubes and related services for the global energy industry. The company taps discretionary effort by “tackling issues brought up by employees,” said Maria Laura Garcia, dean of TenarisUniversity School of Management.
For instance, in its most recent employee opinion survey, only 52 percent of the company’s employees found the performance management process helpful in improving their job performance. TenarisUniversity and the HR development area listened and took swift and transparent action. While other organizations might have trained managers to be more effective, Tenaris decided to “put everyone on board … because everyone has a role in feedback,” said TenarisUniversity Director Rolando Lange.
About 1,300 managers and employees attended training to improve the feedback conversation. “When managers are the only ones responsible, employees disconnect themselves,” Lange said.
Tenaris listened, and made that listening evident to the organization. Rather than training managers out of sight of their employees, they brought the two groups together. Employees heard the “splash” and were able to experience the effect of their input. Now they’re more skillful and empowered to play a greater role in the feedback conversation. Equally important, they feel heard, energized and engaged, and all of those conditions can activate greater discretionary effort.
4. Offer Leadership, Not Lip Service: Faced with a breathtaking growth curve, untapped discretionary effort is not a viable option at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc. The learning function there has found the perfect brew to unlock that effort: a balanced blend of purpose and renewal.
Most organizations have a purpose statement. For some, it’s just words on a wall. But for those companies whose employees volunteer high levels of discretionary effort, the purpose statement is a passion, a guidepost and a way of life.
“When people align themselves with a higher purpose, they are committed,” said Pru Sullivan, director of culture and workplace excellence at Green Mountain. “It’s no longer about a paycheck or promotion — it’s about something more.”
As a specialty coffee and coffee-maker company, Green Mountain has been recognized for its award-winning coffees, Keurig brewing technology and socially responsible business practices with a purpose to: “Create the ultimate beverage experience in every life we touch, from source to cup — transforming the way the world understands business.”
“Our purpose inspires the discretionary effort we need to support our growth curve … because performing in our company means we’re doing good in the world,” Sullivan said.
But a purpose statement alone won’t inspire discretionary effort. Connecting individuals with that purpose is what energizes and excites them to give more of themselves, to care more deeply about the customer, to think harder about the challenges and opportunities before them and the organization. Forward-thinking learning professionals are figuring out how to make that happen.
For example, for the past 27 years, Green Mountain employees have gone on annual “origin trips.” Randomly selected individuals — 80 in 2013 — get to learn the business and witness the company’s purpose firsthand as they travel to and live in the communities in which their product is grown. They get to know the locals and harvest the coffee. “These employees develop a deep and visceral understanding of the business … right down to what it means when a batch is spilled or wasted back at the plant,” Sullivan said. “They have a chance to see the incredibly hard work that goes into growing and harvesting the coffee beans.”
Green Mountain also finds ways to connect employees with its purpose closer to home. Its employee orientation program at the Windsor, Va., plant includes a service project that works to engage new employees’ hearts as well as the communities. The company also has a program that pays employees for up to 52 hours each year to volunteer in their communities.
These efforts help to connect individuals with a higher purpose, allowing them to construct greater meaning around their work. That meaning is a powerful discretionary effort trigger. Yet people can’t sustain that level of energy forever.
Intense effort requires renewal. The learning community at Green Mountain supports this as well, providing instruction designed to help employees learn and commit to personalized practices that bring renewal into their daily lives at work and at home. Individuals and intact teams have experienced the power of small yet transformational steps, and support each other in making them habits. The company has measured a marked increase in energy as a result, one critical to sustain discretionary effort over time.
What could an organization do with 30 percent more good ideas and improvements? Or 30 percent fewer defects? How about 30 percent more satisfied customers or 30 percent higher sales? Let the learning function loose on closing the discretionary effort gap, and these just might be the next questions learning leaders have to answer.ï¿½