Bridging the Gap Between Good Enough and Great

“As for the genius of innovation, clearly the one percent spark of inspiration is nurtured by a positive culture. But the 99 percent perspiration ingredient comes from employees who love what they do, as well as where they do it, and who invest in that Holy Grail of productivity called ‘discretionary effort’.” — Organizational consultants Stephanie Quappe, David Samso Aparici, and Jon Warshawsky.

Bridging the Gap Between Good Enough and Great by Laura Stack #productivity

In one of my Organizational Management courses I took while working on my MBA, we watched a series of TV commercials by Amalie Motor Oil, bragging about how its products exceeded all minimum government standards, ending with this tagline: “Better than it has to be—Amalie.” I remember being confused: Why were they proud of being just good enough to squeak by?

As I gained more experience in the business world, I realized Amalie was typical of most commercial efforts: they were just a tiny bit better than necessary. Looking back, I guess this shouldn’t have surprised me. We learn this philosophy in grade school, after all. In elementary school, smart children don’t have to make much effort at all to get an A. Some children also realize they can get away with just enough effort to earn a C and still pass. Yet, we all know the difference between passing and passing with flying colors.

In the workplace, we call the gap between passing and passing with flying colors “discretionary effort,” because ultimately, the employee determines how hard he or she works. Do they just scrape by or strive to set a shining example?

Your success or failure as a leader depends on your ability to tap discretionary effort. Some leaders use positive reinforcement (a carrot), and still others use negative methods (a stick). Let’s look at examples of both, as well as an intermediate method.

1. The Carrot: Incentivize. I suspect your parents wouldn’t reward you if you came home with D’s. But A’s probably made them happy, which could mean the difference between after-school freedom and a weeks-long grounding until the grades improved. In fact, like my children, you might even be rewarded monetarily. Quarterly, mine get $5.00 per A and a bonus $50 if they get straight A’s. (My 12th-grade daughter hasn’t had a B since 6th grade.) Think about that application at work. What would it take for your workers to do their best to make you happy? You might offer something like extra vacation days or gift cards to great restaurants for the best producer; reward high productivity with an eye-popping Christmas bonus; give a stellar performer a plaque at the entire all-hands meeting; or gently point out to your team that a promotion might soon be in the offing. Money, public praise, power, and even little things like handwritten “thank you” cards can go a long way toward boosting discretionary effort.

2. The Stick: Make an example. Personally, I don’t use the stick, but some leaders have told me they sometimes have no choice. If there’s a layoff and someone has to go, the poorest producer represents the logical candidate. Microsoft uses this exact system, rank-ordering their employees for performance reviews and bonuses. Out of 10 employees, 2 will get glowing reports, 7 will meet standards, and 1 will get a bad review. Make your people aware of this if they don’t “get it” already. Let them know they need to maximize their productivity to avoid a similar fate, and those capable of discretionary effort will be more likely to pour it on. Unfortunately, I think it creates ill will and might make some look for a less-punitive environment outside your company.

3. The Hybrid: Raise Your Standards. Consider establishing your own set of standards that exceed the organization’s. If the company accepts a 7 on a scale of 1-10, tell your people you’ll accept nothing less than an 8. The insufficient employee may suffer only your displeasure if they fall into the gray area between, but that may be enough to stimulate them—especially when times get lean. Your people may think of you as a hardcase, but encouraging workers to excel helps everyone…and they’ll be proud of themselves when they do stand out.

Building Your Bridge

As a leader, you’re duty-bound to find ways to encourage employees to do more than just enough to get by. Dangling a carrot often works well, as does stirring up team pride when they realize that, by definition, your superior standards already put them ahead of the crowd. Sometimes, though, you have to use corrective action to encourage greater productivity, either when times become tough or nothing else works. Whatever the case, don’t hesitate to do whatever you feel you must to bridge the discretionary effort gap.