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Stop the Productivity Skid

If your employees aren’t working as hard as they can, it’s your fault. Here are eight ways to change your ways—and unleash their full creativity and effort.

By Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman

If everyone at the office seems a little sluggish lately, you’re not going crazy. Industry trends suggest a troubling kind of nationwide work shortage: Productivity growth, a major influence in the overall growth of our economy and a primary factor in the ability of organizations to separate themselves from competitors, is on a downward slide. 

For most of the 20th century, productivity averaged a 2.4 percent annual climb. But ever since 2008, it’s taken a precipitous drop to 1.24 percent per year. Somewhere along the way, employees stopped giving 110 percent of their energy and started settling for a bare minimum output. Any amateur economist will tell you that this isn’t good for business. 

So how can your organization boost its productivity and get back to the promised land? By increasing your employees’ discretionary effort. As a leader, it turns out you can leverage a whole lot of it.

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What Is Discretionary Effort? 

We’ve successfully measured discretionary effort simply by asking employees if they believe their work environment is one where people want to “go the extra mile.” We know that by aggregating the results of that item by supervisor, we can obtain a reasonably accurate prediction of the level of discretionary effort in that group.

We recently created a productivity index where we asked employees to rate the effectiveness of their group on five dimensions:

• Is the work well planned and organized to get things done efficiently? 

• Is non-value-added work kept to a minimum? 

• Are problems resolved quickly? 

• Do systems and processes make it quick and easy to get work accomplished?

• Are meetings a productive use of time?

In Figure 1, you’ll see the results of 7,181 employees working in 483 teams. The graph illustrates a simple takeaway: As discretionary effort increases, so does productivity. And after analyzing the variance, we’ve found a highly significant trend between the bottom and top levels of discretionary effort.

How much can a leader sway the level of discretionary effort that employees are willing to put forth? To find out, we gathered data from over 340,000 workers. We assessed their level of discretionary effort and had them rate the effectiveness of their manager in 49 critical leadership behaviors. These behaviors, culled from a batch of more than 2,000, have proven to be most effective at identifying exceptional leaders and highly correlated to organizational outcomes like customer satisfaction, turnover, profitability, sales, and engagement.

We then aggregated the results from the direct reports by manager, so that we had inputs from 65,412 leaders, with an average of just five members on each team. In Figure 2, you’ll see the correlation between a leader’s overall leadership effectiveness score (the average of the 49 behaviors) and the percentage of direct reports who indicated the highest willingness to “go the extra mile.” It’s clear that leaders can and do have a dramatic impact on a direct report’s willingness to give extra effort and work harder.

The worst leaders only bring out extra effort from about 15 percent of their employees; that percentage increases with every decile that leadership effectiveness does. The best leaders, meanwhile, have 70 percent of their reports ready and willing to work harder. Consider the atmosphere and environment in a team where 70 percent of employees are fully committed. Now contrast it to a team with 15 percent. Where would you rather work?

Some might argue that discretionary effort has much more to do with the characteristics and attitudes of the team member rather than the team leader. We submit that the results of relying only on the team members’ attributes is closer to about 15 percent. When considering these findings, keep in mind this is a huge data set, where each decile in the leadership effectiveness ratings represents over 6,500 leaders.

How to Be the Most Effective Leader for Your Team

To understand which behaviors encourage discretionary effort, we examined data from more than 340,000 direct reports and correlated their discretionary effort ratings with their ratings on the 49 behaviors. Based on this analysis, we selected the top 20 behaviors, which we then factor-analyzed to identify eight factors that have the most influence over a leader’s ability to enable discretionary effort. Here are those eight factors, listed in the order of the strength of their correlations. As it turns out, every great leader must:

1. Inspire and motivate others. There are two fundamental avenues that leaders often use to motivate others: pushing (driving for results) or pulling (inspiring and motivating). Pushing is plenty effective—but not all the time.

When we analyzed this same set of leaders, we found that 64 percent were rated higher on their ability to push than their ability to pull. Only 27 percent of the leaders analyzed were rated higher on their ability to pull, and 9 percent were equally rated. While the majority of leaders are better pushers, unfortunately it’s their ability to pull that unleashes discretionary effort in direct reports.

Leaders who effectively pull know the best strategies for exciting and energizing their teams. They make a positive emotional connection and generate a desire to accomplish goals rather than feelings of obedience or obligation. Inspired teams feel like they’re working on an important mission.

On the other hand, leaders who push their teams create the feeling that work needs to be done, and direct reports have to do it—or else. The twist? When you release your team’s discretionary effort by inspiring them, the work that needs to be done gets done—happily.

2. Help team members embrace stretch goals. The power of stretch goals seems strongly influenced by how they’re created. A leader can conceive an extremely challenging goal and then announce it to their team as a final decision. The weight of such goals may feel smothering, but they have no choice.

When the team members accomplish these goals, they breathe a sigh of relief and say, “I’m glad that’s over with!” When people work in a fearful environment, they often temporarily work harder, but only when the source of fear is hovering nearby.

Here’s a different approach to establishing a stretch goal: Involve your team members in deciding what could potentially be accomplished. This means treating them with respect and dignity. When they embrace the goal of their own volition, they’ll be more passionate about the challenge—and even prouder when they crush it.

3. Resolve conflict quickly. Some leaders use competition to motivate. The problem? When left unfettered, that competition leads to conflict. Mix in the normal tensions that arise when people with different backgrounds and personalities work together and conflict always abounds.

We’ve found that conflict doesn’t release discretionary effort. Instead, it encourages people to do just enough to keep their jobs. But when leaders step in to resolve conflict, greater discretionary effort emerges.

4. Communicate often and clearly. There was a time when managers talked about communicating on a “need-to-know” basis. The basic premise was to limit the amount of communication and confine it to what the employee needed to know to execute their job. But this philosophy completely ignored the motivational power of people being well-informed.

Fortunately, many leaders have since adopted an open-book management style. You should help your team members make sense of their jobs and solve problems they didn’t anticipate; treat them like adults instead of children; and give them the maximum amount of information possible.

5. Build positive relationships. Leaders who are effective at building positive relationships with others are more likely to elicit more discretionary effort within their team. It’s simple: People work harder for a manager whom they respect and like.

That starts with building a foundation of trust, which happens when your team believes you’re knowledgeable and inclined to make good decisions. Team members trust a manager who fulfills commitments and performs with reliability and consistency.

6. Have strategic perspective. When team members understand the strategy—and have a direct line of sight between their work and that strategy— they release more discretionary effort. Clarify where you’re all going, and how you’ll all get there. If your employees are confused and don’t know the direction to follow, they’ll slow down or stop moving altogether.

7. Develop others. A manager who is dedicated to developing his or her team invariably generates a much higher level of discretionary effort. Team members, in turn, put forth extra effort when they see that they’re gaining new information or learning new skills. They greatly appreciate the leader who takes interest in them and deliberately provides work assignments that enable them to grow.

8. Have the courage to change. Making a change is often a two-step process. It begins with a manager seeing something that isn’t working properly or has room to improve. The second step: implementing the change by taking action. Unfortunately, many leaders see the problems and the opportunities, but they don’t take that second step.

Why? It’s simple: Because making big changes requires big courage. Team members often feel their organizations are stuck and that they spend their days doing unnecessary busy work.

So be bold: If you challenge unproductive practices and actually change them, you’ll undoubtedly move your organization forward.

Take the Discretionary Effort Challenge

We know that there are vast reservoirs of creativity, ingenuity, and a desire to contribute within every employee. But sometimes they stay bottled up until a great leader comes along and uncaps them. While productivity improvement is a complex outcome, you have the power to unleash your team members’ discretionary effort and help them accomplish something great—and lasting.

Jack Zenger is the cofounder and CEO of Zenger Folkman, a professional services firm providing consulting and leadership development programs for organizational effectiveness initiatives. He is the coauthor of seven books on leadership, including Speed—How Leaders Accelerate Successful Execution.

Joe Folkman is the cofounder and president of Zenger Folkman. He is a highly acclaimed keynote speaker at conferences and seminars the world over. His expertise focuses on a variety of subjects related to leadership, feedback, and individual and organizational change.