concept of worker going the extra mile

Building a Culture of Excellence

Star performers often have an innate, internal drive to exceed expectations. It’s a tough thing to cultivate, but relatively easy to quash. Leaders should be careful not to stymie this quality in their teams. Linda Henman offers five tips to encourage “discretionary” effort.

Years ago, I worked for a boss who would have told you how much he admired, encouraged and inspired discretionary effort. And he would have been wrong on all counts. However, he would have also told you that he went to great lengths to hire highly motivated people who would ensure his success as a business owner, and he would have been right about that. So, how did the wheels come off his plan?

Highly motivated people don’t need external forces to encourage them to go above and beyond. It’s in their DNA. But these same top performers can cease to perform when their bosses engage in demotivating behaviors, as my former boss did.

For instance, he asked me to participate in a new business development initiative to reach potential clients in a new geographical location that involved me collaborating with the business development professional. I agreed, even though this was beyond the purview of my job.

After the event, he asked me to evaluate the experience. I told him I didn’t think the approach would work for specific reasons. He exploded and told me he didn’t appreciate my negativity, even though he asked for what I presumed he wanted: candor. Of course, I was right, and we didn’t acquire one new client, but the boss never discussed that with me. Nor did he apologize for his outburst.

A series of episodes like this led me to limit my discretionary efforts and to eventually leave the company. I had been motivated when he hired me, but because of his leadership, my motivation had waned. I didn’t like the way that felt. I liked going beyond expectations, but I really didn’t like getting scolded for my resourcefulness.

I define discretionary effort as the level of performance that goes beyond what’s required. It involves the energy people willingly exert, often in response to internal goals to do more than their bosses expect. Unfortunately, many bosses, like my former one, manage performance in such a way that motivates employees to do only enough to get by and avoid getting in trouble.

You can’t measure discretionary effort with employee satisfaction surveys or any other happy-to-grumpy scale. You see it in the results. Discretionary effort is not a “thing” that responds to events, motivational speeches, training or any other HR initiative. It surfaces when leaders do these five things:

  1. Delegate key decisions and empower others with both authority and responsibility to carry them out.
  2. Provide the necessary training and opportunities to develop individual skills.
  3. Show appreciation for autonomy and effort, even when an initiative fails.
  4. Encourage collaboration.
  5. Serve as an exemplar of consistency.

Increased discretionary effort can have a considerable impact on the trajectory of any organization, no matter what size or industry. A culture of excellence can’t help but follow.


Linda Henman

Dr. Linda Henman is one of those rare experts who can say she’s a coach, consultant, speaker, and author. For more than 30 years, she has worked with Fortune 500 Companies and small businesses that want to think strategically, grow dramatically, promote intelligently, and compete successfully today and tomorrow. Some of her clients include Emerson Electric, Boeing, Avon and Tyson Foods. She was one of eight experts who worked directly with John Tyson after his company’s acquisition of International Beef Products, one of the most successful acquisitions of the twentieth century.

Linda holds a Ph.D. in organizational systems and two Master of Arts degrees in both interpersonal communication and organization development and a Bachelor of Science degree in communication. Whether coaching executives or members of the board, Linda offers clients coaching and consulting solutions that are pragmatic in their approach and sound in their foundation—all designed to create exceptional organizations.

She is the author of Landing in the Executive Chair: How to Excel in the Hot Seat, The Magnetic Boss: How to Become the Leader No One Wants to Leave, and contributing editor and author to Small Group Communication, among other works.

Dr. Henman can be reached at [email protected].

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