Sharpen your environment

by | Mar 28, 2022 | All Blogs, Corporate Culture, Engagement, Leadership

How to build a high performing culture through discretionary effort

The ‘Great Resignation’, a global movement that is seeing employees leave their organisation in search of ‘more’, seems to be being matched by the antidote of the ‘The Great Retention’. This movement sees employers take new initiatives and find innovative ways to retain their employees. As is being reported by McKinsey, MIT Sloan and Harvard, the answer more and more seems to have little to do with an employees’ remuneration package. Instead, it’s all about the idea of building the right environment and boosting ‘discretionary effort’. Discretionary effort is the holy grail.

I spent over 20 years in people leadership, working in the retail banking sector and later, helping organisations in the agricultural sector. I worked my way up the corporate ladder, and it was during the latter time in retail banking I got to understand the impact of organisational culture on performance. One of the musings I had was that the main business focus tends to be on the technical and commercial aspects of the organisation Most of the meetings focused on systems and processes, the commercial outcomes, and the KPIs. Not a lot of conversations and not a lot of energy and effort are put into how good the environment was that we were creating for our people to work at their best.

Introducing SHARPEN your environment

The idea behind the SHARPEN theme, aside from its link to my name (so easy to remember!), is the notion that we are responsible for the environment of our people. In fact, we might consider that it is our employees’ behaviour specifically that is our ‘environment’ and our most significant opportunity as leaders is to ‘curate their environment’ to a point where our people feel trust towards us (Thank you Marcus Cann, my best mate who once said to me, “your behaviour is my environment.” Such a wonderful statement to describe a person’s environment at work).

The SHARPEN method

One of the conclusions that I came to is that if organisations get their environment right, then what tends to happen is the technical and commercial aspects take care of themselves. People feel like they can come to work and be themselves; they feel like they can be supported, have vulnerable conversations, admit mistakes, and operate at their best. They have a deep sense of belonging to the place.

Some of these themes will be familiar if you’ve seen me speak before. If you’re new to my work, let me walk you through it. So here is a brief overview of my themes.

S- Stand Up. Speak Up.

Create an environment where people are willing to stand and speak up. To raise a mistake. To raise an idea. To come to you and be vulnerable. To say they are having a challenge at home that affects their work. You will create an environment where people want to come to work and give their discretionary effort (Thank you Amy Edmondson, for the expert on modern Psychological Safety Theory globally).

Create a safe work environment where people are willing to stand and speak.

H- Humility Defines Heroes

Being able to say I don’t know. Make a mistake and admit it. Put your ego behind you. It’s a critical lesson often learned the hard way. Take on a humble approach to all things, whether in chaos and stress or not. Better to be humble and curious. You will get the love back from your people. Comparatively to those who like to shine through their ego!

I often say to leaders that individuals will always have the option of who they follow, irrespective of whom they report. Nathaniel Fick in “One Bullet Away” explained the importance of ‘moral authority’ versus ‘legal authority.

When in combat, he had to maintain moral authority with his troops for them to want to follow him. You might have the most senior title globally, but that doesn’t necessarily mean people will follow you. I’ve learned that the holy grail is to develop moral authority with your team so as to increase the likelihood your team members’ personally choose to give their discretionary effort.

A- Authenticity Always

Your role will push you in many different directions and test your authenticity. You will be tried in positions where you feel you need to be someone else, an alternate personality. You don’t need to. Be vulnerable with your people because you will get it back from your people in spades. You don’t always need to have the answer. If you do that with your people and allow them to do that with you, a connection is almost guaranteed.

Employees look to their leaders for authenticity when times are uncertain.

R- Recognition drives Repetition

If you recognise behaviour in someone, their brain will recognise that and send a message that it feels good. I need to drive towards that again. Remember to recognize specifically the behaviour, not just say ‘good job’. Instead, it’s essential to stipulate the behaviour you saw, ie. “I loved how you went over and helped John with his end of month reporting; thank you.”

For me, it’s vital to catch people doing the right thing. Not just the wrong thing. We have to be conscious to choose to see doing the right thing in a day to overcome our negative bias.

P- Positivity Attracts Potential

As human beings, we are attracted to the positive. Positive emotions impact the brain’s prefrontal cortex – located in the front of the brain. When the prefrontal cortex is activated, there is an increase in activity and zeal. The increase in positivity establishes heightened mental reactions such as creative thinking, intellectual adaptability, and an increase in the brain’s capacity to process information. Our attention span is increased, and we think in terms of “we” instead of “me.” (Achieve, 2020)

And so the idea of positivity attracts potential not only from the people in your environment but also other people from other places who will want to come want to work in your environment because they hear about it.

Your attitudes directly affect your employees and the people around you.

E- Effectiveness Demands Empathy

You have to show empathy towards people no matter how contentious or difficult the situation is. When you don’t show empathy (not sympathy) in challenging conversations, you lose the connection. When you begin to lose the link, your people will be less and less willing to tell you what is going on. Always being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is critical in creating an environment where people want to come and do more for you.

N- Never Give Up

Never give up. The message here is around resilience and curiosity. Be curious about what’s going on. Why are you feeling a certain way? It will put you in a better position as to how you’re managing yourself and the emotional response of others.

It’s hard work. Work’s technical and commercial aspects are pretty simple compared to what you’re dealing with when leading people. Whatever you choose to do, it’s essential to be persistent and consistent so that people come to know what to expect from you. Getting this right can help you keep employees engaged in what you’re trying to achieve, but it can also be the difference between a good performance and an exceptional performance.