Be honest. If you had a gas or water leak, you’d fix it. If an investment was draining your portfolio, you’d sell. So, why are so many smart leaders willing to accept “discretionary effort” as an inevitable feature of — and drain on — business today? Why do we allow employee energy — a precious natural resource — to routinely be wasted?

Condoned sub-optimization

Discretionary effort is the difference between the effort an employee is capable of bringing to a job or task and the effort actually required to just get by. According to 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% of what they feel they could be giving.”

Leadership IQ research indicates that 72% of employees polled admit they aren’t giving their best effort. And, in the same study, 77% of their managers agreed.

There’s clearly a disconnect between what employees are capable of and what many actually do. So organizations respond with a variety of initiatives, programs, and training designed to tap into that differential. Leaders learn and work valiantly to apply strategies and skills to cultivate greater effort from employees. But this approach is limited and time-intensive. As a result, we let about 30% untapped potential go down the drain.

Like draining the ocean with a teaspoon

The work of individual leaders with their employees to tap discretionary effort is admirable, but it’s also a lot like trying to drain the ocean with a teaspoon. Perhaps it’s time to allow a more holistic, systemic approach to replace the time-consuming, ad hoc activities undertaken by busy managers and leaders.

Instead of trying to coax the latent skills and energy out of employees, activate unapplied capability or go through the machinations of engagement, involvement, and interest (in an effort to tap discretionary effort), perhaps it’s time to approach the challenge differently. Time to change what’s required to “just get by” to close the discretionary effort gap.

  • What if we raised expectations to better align with actual capacity?
  • What if excellence was the standard?
  • What if one’s best effort was required to “just get by”?
  • What if we eliminate the whole idea of discretionary effort by making 100% (or darn close to it) the performance goal?

Not as harsh as it sounds.

Expecting people to activate and realize their full effort every day has the potential to drive productivity, innovation, and results beyond most other improvement initiatives — but only when organizations commit to five key priorities.

  1. There must be no discretionary or untapped effort by the organization when it comes to recruiting, hiring, and retention. A team of highly skilled and capable individuals will inspire, support, and drive each other toward higher levels of effort.
  2. Sustained high levels of effort require training, retraining and training again to keep skills sharp. Enable people with the information, knowledge, and capability they need to do their jobs with ease. This is the only way that bringing forth their best 40-60-80 hours each week is sustainable.
  3. Supply the equipment, tools, and resources to support excellence. Failing to do this shows up in study after study as one of the greatest frustrations to employees. And not having what is needed to perform at the highest levels becomes permission to back off. This creates the untapped potential that is discretionary effort.
  4. Organizations that demand optimal effort and performance must be willing to share the rewards. While money may not be the top motivator for most employees, inequity is definitely among the most powerful de-motivators for most of us. Compensation that’s transparent and aligned to the results delivered enables sustained best effort.
  5. Work-life balance. The kind of environment characterized by everyone working at 100% effort is more intense than then normal 9-5 grind and requires the organization to honor and encourage principles of work-life balance. Intense effort demands intense rest. Employees must be able to escape their jobs, turn off their cellphones, and have time to rejuvenate and replenish the energy invested in their work.

Given the performance pressures most organizations experience, the time might just be right to de-emphasize the tactics of involvement and engagement, and begin considering a broader strategy to drive results by taking discretionary effort out of the equation.

What could your organization do with another 30% effort by employees? What other support is required to really close the discretionary effort gap?

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