Real Leaders

Earn the Gift of Discretionary Effort

The Secret to 21st Century Leadership

By Karla Brandau

A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”  – John C. Maxwell

Wake-Up Call

Great leaders do not sugarcoat the truth. When the past recession hit, one CEO of a large manufacturing company confronted the realities and knew something had to change for his company to survive. Peering over his reading glasses, he looked across the desk at one of his employees and said, “Nothing in this company is sacred. Everything will be evaluated and put on the chopping block in order to maintain profitability. This economy is but a wake-up call. We will survive.”

Leadership teams across the world hear the wake-up call whenever an economic recession hits, but the quickly changing landscape of the 21st century requires continuous refocus to survive as an organization. The constant evaluation of organizational performance includes leadership practices.

The most recent worldwide economic downturn was not a mere fluctuation in the market, but was revolutionary, causing seismic shifts in business procedures and in organizational social structures that affect profitability, economic sustainability, and discretionary effort. The recession caused organizations to look at the principles that guide their leadership teams to enable them to better navigate the complexity of their workplace culture amid the uncertainties of the global economic environment.

Outdated People Practices

A current deterioration of business results may be attributed to changing market conditions or to the inability to compete with the improved products and services offered by competitors. These may be factors in such a complex issue as market success, but we maintain the real culprit is failure to create an environment where discretionary effort is freely given by every employee on a daily basis.

As your leadership team evaluates your people practices that discourage discretionary effort, you may observe that some practices are outdated because they were designed from the implicit social contracts of the 20th century. While these people policies worked at one time, most of them are declining in their effectiveness, especially with the new workers entering the workforce.

One of the 20th century declining people philosophies is “do more with less.” Companies under pressure to improve the bottom line try to improve revenues by letting people go and by putting extreme stress on machinery, supply chains, and workers to produce the maximum amount possible in the least amount of time with as few resources as possible. These strategies work for only a limited time.

The people practice of pushing people to work harder and to give more is a temporary solution that more than enough employees are willing to deliver when occasionally asked. However, if the organization asks for the same maximized effort every week, there are consequences. Workers become tired and make mistakes. Their home lives become unbalanced and employees’ families can experience resentment. Employees could be asked to temporarily overlook safety or quality procedures not overtly noticeable to a customer but compromises the integrity of the products. What if, however, while temporarily overlooking safety or quality, a severe problem surfaces with the product or an employee gets seriously hurt at work?

A problem with the do-more-with-less approach is that it assumes increased demand can be met simply by squeezing more out of the system. The hidden reality is that every system has built-in inefficiencies, and when leadership teams start looking for wastefulness and ineffectiveness, they set countless improvements in motion.  

21st-Century People Practices

Simultaneously with the discovery and elimination of inefficiencies, leaders can start the process of establishing a culture that earns the gift of discretionary effort on a regular basis. Discretionary effort is the key to 21st-century productivity, and economic sustainability. The gift of discretionary effort is built on valuing human dignity, creating safety and security, extending social acceptance, and rationally aligning each individual employee with company purposes.

What is discretionary effort? Cultivation of discretionary effort is both an individual and a collective process to improve the level of energy and innovation that flows within an organization. It is neither a quick fix nor an expensive and resource-depleting process, and when done in a measured and incremental way, discretionary effort is a breakthrough improvement.

Traditional literature defines discretionary effort as the difference between the level of effort a worker is capable of bringing to an activity or task and the minimum effort required to do the work and get a paycheck. This minimum level of effort can be made by employees who are competent at their jobs but who are relatively unengaged in the overall goals of the company.

For example, experienced and knowledgeable workers may only be giving the minimum level of effort as they do routine work required by their job description: processing invoices, making sales calls, writing proposals, and completing work of a supportive nature such as coordination, follow-up, rework, rewrites, and clarifications. How would the results of their work be different if they understood the goals of the company and were giving discretionary effort instead of the minimum required to get a pay check?

Giving discretionary effort is a voluntary act. When an employee gives the company discretionary effort, it is an intentional, free-will choice. Before discretionary effort contributions are observable, they exist as potential in the mind of every employee as ideas to improve what is happening. These ideas represent great power waiting to be tapped that increase resources and reduce costs as workers add value to the tasks they perform. Leadership teams often think doing more with less is about computers, technology, and waste reduction strategies. Doing more with less includes this hidden gem of teaching managers how to earn the gift of discretionary effort from employees as opposed to demanding or forcing extra effort and long hours.

What Does it Mean to Earn the Gift?

Every employee has gifts or talents that are not visible on a resume or in a hiring interview. Some of these are gifts of character such as determination, purpose, and resilience. Think of the talents of employees wrapped in beautiful boxes sitting around them on the floor and on their desks. With this analogy, your entire office building would be filled with impressively wrapped packages waiting to be unwrapped as if it were a birthday party where the “gifts” are regularly unwrapped. The workers give these packages to you and their coworkers as your leadership team works with the concepts in this book and implements the Discretionary Effort Leadership Model.

Earning the gift of discretionary effort from employees begins with the members of your leadership team living and breathing the five levels of the Discretionary Effort Leadership Model themselves. As the leaders practice integrity and unwrap their own gifts of discretionary effort, their direct reports will see the positive results and want to imitate the leaders’ examples. In an environment of mutual confidence and trust, managers are respected and are in a position to earn the gifts of discretionary effort from employees.  When discretionary effort is modeled by management and is engrained in the culture, workers freely unwrap their gifts of discretionary effort as needed because they feel safe, respected, and trusted. 

A man at one company where we consulted told us, “My company has had my hands for over 30 years. You know, they could have had my head as well.” This quote illustrates two things. First, some companies do not place appropriate value on the gifts of the individual employee. Second, most workers want to contribute at higher levels than their environments allow. Discretionary effort is earned by recognizing workers as resources that can bring value beyond the obvious academic discipline and skills for which they were hired.

The Ross Brandau Discretionary Effort Leadership Model helps leaders earn the gift of discretionary effort and the release of knowledge that resides in the brains of employees on a daily basis, both of which help the company move forward to increased economic sustainability.

Figure 1.The Five Leadership Levels

When implemented, the five leadership levels outlined in the model make it possible for leaders at all levels of the organization to earn the gift of discretionary effort from employees on a regular basis. Notice that a work environment of integrity and gratitude provides a solid foundation for the implementation of the five levels.

The five levels of Discretionary Effort Leadership are:

1.      Safety and Security. Leadership Level 1 provides a safe and secure working environment for employees. Rules are followed, validated, improved, refined, and recognized on a daily basis at an individual level throughout the organization. Employers place a high worth on the security of every worker. The focus on security provides an environment free from bodily harm. A safe and secure environment is essential in order for employees to concentrate on continuous improvement. Employees need to be free to work rather than worry about safety and security issues.

2.      Social Acceptance. Leadership Level 2 describes the cultural norms and behaviors that recognize the human dignity of all employees. Everyone is recognized as a value-added part of the whole, or part of the family. Employees want to feel they are part of the core group. The more they feel part of the whole team, the more success will develop as they voluntarily contribute their discretionary energy.

3.  Rational Alignment. Leadership Level 3 is critical to the functioning of the entire organization. It is here that values, vision, and mission statements flow into long-term objectives and deadlines. Employees logically align with the values, vision, and mission of the organization and then rationally make daily work plans to reflect their stewardship. The daily tasks must rationally align with work output needed to move projects from theory into reality.

At this point in the process, it is important to assess the company systems, policies, and procedures to ensure the first three levels are not being inadvertently sabotaged. If the company is structurally sound and the first three levels are carefully implemented, the fourth and fifth levels will happen naturally.

4.      Emotional Commitment. Leadership Level 4 describes the difference between engagement and emotional commitment. Manifestations of low emotional commitment hinder and impede the flow of discretionary effort individually and collectively. Modeling emotional commitment clears the way for objective, value-added solutions where employees collaborate to solve complex problems and communicate to overcome misunderstandings.

5.      Authentic Contribution. The entire organization will recognize a victory when employees move to Leadership Level 5. At this level all team members take ownership and treat the business as their own. Employees take on the feel of partners in the organization.

Understanding how these five levels work is the key to organizational profitability and economic sustainability. 

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