Managing Discretionary Effort

As managers we have to focus our time and energy. The immediate needs of productivity, cost and revenue often drive behavior at the expense of longer term transformational behavior. Service delivery, competition and making the numbers are our management accountabilities but what about our leadership accountability?

As part of a management team we need to ensure efficiency, controlling inputs and processes, maintaining the means of production and managing materials. We also manage people; we try to select the right people, orientate them and organise them into teams, matching them to tasks and setting standards. This is a comparatively process driven set of parameters and actions; the part that takes us the next step and delivers excellent results is about leadership and tapping into the discretionary potential that exists within each of our employees.

Discretionary effort is performance above which is required for the team member to maintain their employment. This is about an employee’s desire to go beyond just collecting their pay and having some skin in the game for building a high performing organisation. It is a willingness to be interested and engaged in assisting the organisation in the accomplishment of its goals.

How do leaders tap the discretionary effort that all members of their teams possess?  First and foremost they create an environment where team members can contribute ideas. This means they strive to treat each team member as a contributing adult, who is expected to bring ideas and be recognised for generating ideas to make things better. This means making and taking the time to share an understanding of issues faced by the business and helping employees rise above self-interest and entitlement to be engaged in serving the good of the whole team and/or organisation.

The uncertainty we face in the current environment creates demand for effective leadership and the capability to manage change. Talented people are attracted to organisations where their skills will be recognised and where they will get learning and growth.

Another element of enabling discretionary effort lies in how we structure the employment relationship. This relationship is possibly the most managed but least challenged aspect of human resource leadership. In some sectors we still see a lingering anxiety about challenging the assumption of inevitable conflict between labor and management. To enable and encourage optimal performance and service delivery, organisations need to create employment relationships that are fulfilling, satisfying and rewarding.  Each manager has a relationship with the people who work with them.  They must take responsibility for shaping that relationship to serve the organisation’s mission.  Employment disputes are directly related to the quality of leadership.

Sustainable change occurs when leaders engage people in a compelling future that is better than their current reality and rally them to feel they are part of an achieving team. They want to feel the engagement and satisfaction that comes from being recognized as being part of something that works.

Commitment is the essential element in sustaining capability in a resource constrained environment. Commitment is a function of culture, not so much the ‘soft’ intangible messages in the organisation’s values, but more in the real origins of culture – the financial delegations, purchasing authorities, communication protocols and all those other ‘hard’ business processes that are a proxy for trust and which shape peoples’ behavior.  If it is punishing to follow process and rewarding to take short cuts, then that will reinforce certain behaviors. Look at your business processes to understand your culture.

The most important contribution that leaders can give their people is a “vision” of what the organisation is all about, what it is trying to achieve and how it will do this. People want to know three things; what is the big picture, what’s my part and how will I know how I’m going? Individuals make discretionary effort choices based on the answers to these questions.

Vision statements count for nothing if leadership behavior does not set an example and processes do not build trust and collaboration. Inconsistencies in behavior will immediately be identified and used as evidence that management is not serious.  Management credibility disappears.

So as leaders, what do we need to do? There are a few capabilities that stand out above the normal expectations. We need to have fluency with ideas – storytelling is a match winner for leadership and people love hearing leaders talk about where we are going and why. Today, more than ever, we need to understand and be proficient with technology – it’s a ticket to the game regardless of what sector we work in. We need to be bold and have a bias toward opportunity and action with an ability to harness the power of networks. In terms of practical actions a few ideas to progress are as follows:

  1. Peak Experiences. Ask leaders to identify the peak experiences that have shaped their learning and engagement and look at how you can replicate these experiences for others
  2. Base learning on identifying people’s and process strengths and work on these to get more of what is working well
  3. Exposure to the big picture. Shadow leadership team and/or skip level meetings – stories from senior leaders
  4. Talent Strategy. Develop a shared clarity about what capability is needed now and in the medium and long term. Build a robust talent strategy – brand, sourcing, selection, development and measurement
  5. Business processes. Look at how hard or easy it is to get things done? What behaviour gets modelled and reinforced? What messages are conveyed by your rules on delegation; on liaison authority; on purchasing?
  6. Conduct a values audit to determine if the organisation is being authentic with its values and identify opportunities for development

History shows us that experience is only useful to the extent that the future is like the past and the future may not be what it used to be.

 

About the author:

1s7a0495Crispin Garden-Webster is Takatuf’s leader in assessment design, capability and organisational development, with over 32 years of professional consulting and leadership experience. A former Director of Army Psychology Services for the New Zealand Army, Crispin’s previous roles include HR strategy projects at the Asian Development Bank, extensive consulting with the New Zealand Public Sector, as well as leadership roles at Telecom New Zealand.Crispin brings a mature level of cross-cultural and cross-organisational experiences to Takatuf, having completed assignments in the Philippines, Pakistan, Fiji, Germany, Vietnam and Oman, and within the Telecom, Financial, Science, Defence and Oil and Gas sectors.