Tag Archives: discretionary effort

Fueling the human rocket.

Fueling employee engagement
What does it take to fuel employee engagement?

A few years ago, the Conference Board offered a definition of employee engagement that has become widely used and highly popular:  “A heightened emotional connection that employees feel for their organization … that influences them to exert greater discretionary effort to their work.”

The key point in that description is the link between “emotional connection” and “discretionary effort.”  Without an emotional connection, it’s very difficult to get people tuned in, turned on and eager to go the extra mile.

Making an emotional connection

In my new book – Getting to the Heart of Employee Engagement – I offer a somewhat provocative idea on how to make that kind of emotional connection.  It starts with the premise about the main qualities that differentiate human beings from all other living creatures – namely imagination and free will.  Not our intelligence – lots of animals are highly intelligent.  Not our souls – Disney has made it clear that “all dogs go to heaven.”  Not our compassion – many animals demonstrate strong emotional feelings about their fellow creatures.

At one point in writing the book, I was overcome by an out-of-body force that seemed to take over the keyboard and channel through me what may be the only significant original thought I’ve ever had.  Imagination and free will go hand-in-hand, and they are useless without one another.  Imagination without free will has no power.  Free will without imagination has no purpose.

Here’s why that idea is so important.  When people are not given the opportunity to exercise their innate, uniquely human gifts of imagination and free will, you diminish their potential and undermine their trust in the organization’s commitment to their success and well being.  Putting it more simply – you take the human out of human being.

Going beyond imagination and free will

But imagination and free will by themselves are not enough. Lots horrible things have come from people using their imagination and free will.  If you want employees to trust the organization and give the very best they are capable of contributing to its success, you must design systems, processes, policies and practices that foster the development of “human rockets” in three ways  – just like a real rocket:

  1. Optimize the potential of each person’s capacity for imagination and free will (thrusters and boosters to make them soar)
  2. Provide for the security and self-esteem that people need in order to feel safe  in exercising their imagination and free will (stabilizers to keep them from wobbling)
  3. Specify the responsibility and provide the constructive accountabilitythat people need in order to guide their decisions and actions in the use of their imagination and free will (a guidance system to keep them on course)

If you grasp the essential nature of the “human rocket,” it’s easy to understand why employees need to have some sense of control over the things that affect their lives and their ability to perform at their best. No one does their best when their only motivation comes from an external force.

Looking at the bright side of control

It’s also important to understand that “control” is not a four-letter word.  In the end, it’s just another word for predictability.  We mistakenly think that people don’t like “command and control,” but that’s only half right.  They hate the command part, for sure, but the control part is important. No one likes it when things are out of control.  People just want to have some say in what those controls are and how they are applied – especially when it comes to things that affect their own lives and their ability to do their best. When organizations learn how to apply that vital lesson, there will no shortage of the connection that employees feel for their enterprise – and they will demonstrate a level of extra effort beyond what most managers can imagine.

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Getting the most from your “discretionary effort system.”

One of the most popular definitions for employee engagement is discretionary effort. But when you ask the question – “Discretionary effort for what?” – the answers can go in a lot of different directions, and they’re often not very strategically targeted. Asking yourself a few key questions will help you leverage employee engagement for things that matter most to the organization and employees alike:

1. What do we want people to do?
Determine your priorities, and communicate frequently and consistently with employees on where you want them to focus their discretionary effort.

2. How do we want them to do it?
Give employees a mechanism for taking action and initiative based on what we call the 4-S principles. No, I didn’t miss one from the 5-S “lean” system. These are different – simple, streamlined, supportive and systemic.

3. How do we get them tuned in and turned on?
Explain to employees how their individual efforts to “go the extra mile” can boost company performance, and give them a stake in the outcomes with modest incentives and bonuses.

4. How do we keep it alive?
Make continuous improvement part of the daily routine by putting it in everyone’s job description, and discuss it in regular group meetings and one-on-one conversations.

5. How well are we doing it?
Monitor and measure the level of discretionary effort employees put into making improvements in your top priorities, and show them the impact it’s having on critical performance indicators.

6. How are we reinforcing it?
Recognize people’s contributions frequently and sincerely with simple yet meaningful expressions of acknowledgment and appreciation.

The actual design of your “discretionary effort system” will vary depending on a lot of factors such as type of business, size of the organization, number and locations of operations, communication tools. . .and plain old culture. But answering those questions is a great starting point for any organization to ensure that they get the biggest bang for the buck when it comes to employee engagement.

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