What defines high-performance?

Who replaces the water in the water cooler at your job? I’m willing to bet it is not the Water Cooler Filler specifically employed by your company. I’d even be willing to suggest that perhaps you don’t even know who this person is. The reality is that these hidden individuals actually reveal the secret blueprint for taking an organization to the next level. The reason is the Discretionary Effort.

The Secret of every high-performance organization

Over the last decade in leadership, the conversations I have had regarding discretionary effort have been brief and mostly in passing. The sad fact is that it is not talked about or discussed much among leaders at all. Leaders spend their time wracking their brains over how to improve productivity and increase profit for the bottom line but they miss the one vital component to every successful organization and that is learning to tap into the discretionary effort of their team. 

What is discretionary effort?

Let’s define discretionary effort. This is the effort that a person chooses whether or not to give. This is the effort that your best team members give without even thinking. They know what needs to be done and they do it. This is the effort that you never have to ask for and yet you get from people for reasons you cannot understand. Simply put: Every person on your team walks into work every day with two pockets full of discretionary effort. The culture and environment they find when they get there will determine whether or not they contribute the effort or whether or not it gets left in their pockets.

When depicted, discretionary effort is the contribution that is given above and beyond expectations. This is the area in green on the chart below. In this scenario, June and Phil are your “A” players contributing above and beyond what is expected. John, Tom, and Betty provide the foundation and stability of your team doing exactly what is expected. Sally and Bob have gaps in their performance that will need to be addressed.

Discretionary effort

The magic happens when, as a leader, you learn how to tap into the discretionary effort of those members on your team that have not yet decided to give it. That’s when your team begins achieving results you never considered possible. That’s when your team runs on autopilot and all that is required of the leader is to provide a little direction and clarity and celebrate the excellent performance. 

How do I unlock discretionary effort?

One word: Engagement

When people feel engaged, valued, appreciated, noticed, and celebrated, that’s when they’ll surprise you with the full effort they are able to give. It also takes you giving them your full effort.

I have had the good fortune over the last 20 years of being a part of teams that contributed at this level. At the time we never talked about it in terms of how much extra we were giving, we just did it. We knew that our leader would take care of us if we took care of them. We knocked targets and goals out of the park. The phrase “That’s not my job” never entered our vocabulary. We knew what needed to be done and we thrived on exceeding those expectations.

Unfortunately, I have also been a part of teams in the last 20 years that could not seem to get out of their own way. “That’s not my job” was a frequent phrase heard in the office. The team spent more time focused on giving only the minimum requirement and nothing more. There was no perspective for the potential of what could be with just a little bit of discretionary effort sprinkled across the group. The leader was focused on the result so blindly that the steps to get there were elusive. The ideas and passion of the team were overlooked and the discretionary effort was withheld. Consequently, this team never achieved any of their targets or goals even though we all felt as though we were meeting our individual expectations. 

Any leader that wants to create a high performing team and unleash the amazing results that follow, will pay very close attention to the discretionary effort of the individuals on the team. Those that are already contributing need to be acknowledged, appreciated, and celebrated. Those that are not contributing need to be encouraged, invested in, and valued for the contributions they are giving as a means of reaping even more. Those that have performance gaps need to be noticed and engaged to determine the cause of the gap: knowledge and skill or will and attitude. Unhealthy organizations are the ones in which the “C” players are happy and the “A” players are uncomfortable or upset. Top performing organizations are ones in which the “A” players are happy and the “C” players are uncomfortable or upset. 

Discretionary effort is truly the secret sauce of any high performing team, and high-level problems like productivity and profit are easily solved once this is understood and applied.

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