Fresh Milk from Contented Cows

March 2011
Featured Article
Discretionary Effort. The willingness to give it all you've got. It's important in any economy, but in this one, it's essential. This article looks at the situation with Wisconsin's state employees, what it has to do with Discretionary Effort, and a few things you can do to avoid crowds with signs assembling in front of TV cameras where you work.
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Featured Article: Discretionary Effort: Why Wisconsin's Governor (and Yours) May be Playing a Losing Game
School Teacher

Having wrung needed and significant concessions from them, the newly elected Governor of Wisconsin has been making a rather poorly disguised effort to nullify the collective bargaining agreements and rights of various groups of state workers, principally teachers. As with nearly every other issue of import these days, the whole world is suddenly watching, including likeminded governors in several neighboring states who are licking their chops at the prospect of following the lead penguin into the drink. Whoa... Full Flaps, Brakes, Stop!


In the interest of full disclosure, I am no fan of labor unions. Indeed, a significant portion of my professional effort over the course of 3 decades has focused on helping organizations obviate unions by maintaining a positive employee relations culture, a culture in which both the individual and the organization can do their best work and gain the most from it.


That said, I respect every worker's right to make a choice as to whether or not they are willing to enter into a direct, cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship with their management. That choice is most often based on whether or not management has earned the benefit of the doubt. If the answer is yes, workers feel no need to reach out and seek (let alone pay for) the protection of organized labor. Are you with me so far? Alright, hang on.


Demonstrations notwithstanding, there is probably at least an even chance that Governor Scott Walker will pull off some kind of flash bang, middle of the night vote and get his way, even if it means reinventing the law right before our eyes. Even if that comes to pass, while winning the hand, he will lose the game. Correction, the people of Wisconsin will lose.  


How? Because there will still be a need for thousands of teachers, and every one of them will STILL make a quiet daily decision as to whether they want to give their full measure of effort that day, or mail it in. Given the backdrop, which choice do you think they will make?


For the last twelve years we have worked almost entirely within the field of Discretionary Effort, studying, writing, speaking, and teaching leaders about that extra layer of effort that every one of us can give to a situation if, but only if, we want to. Eerily consistent with similar work by Towers Watson and Gallup, our own engagement surveys suggest that barely 50% of workers are, by their own admission doing their very best work, and that most of us routinely expend no more than 60 to 70% of our maximum effort in the workspace. In other words, a lot of unspent capacity goes home with us at day's end.


So, if just half of the 50,000 or so teachers in a state, any state ratchet the 'ole effort meter back another 10-20%, what is that going to cost to compensate for the lost productivity? Perhaps more importantly, what will it do to the level of educational performance in the state? If you're getting a mental image of a post office being superimposed over your local school district, you're getting the picture.


What about the team YOU lead? Do its members choose to give you everything they've got? Or just enough to keep their jobs? Are you:

* Expressing appreciation every chance you get?

* Rewarding outstanding performance?

* Ensuring that everyone knows how and why their work matters?

* Dealing with ineffective or substandard performance? 

* Mentoring anyone?

* Listening to what you're team members are saying (and not saying)?


Here's a suggestion on that last bullet point: conduct an Employee Engagement Survey , to find out, without the benefit of protests in the street or a Capitol Rotunda sit-in, where your engagement level stands, and then how to bring it up to where it needs to be. If you'd like help with that process, let us know


Since the publication of our first book, Contented Cows Give Better Milk in 1998, we have maintained that giving workers (be they on the assembly line at GM, or a school in Racine) benefits they haven't earned, the market doesn't require, and you can't afford is the antithesis of good employee relations, because some day you have to take all that stuff back.  


As the folks at GM did, and now a lot of teachers and other municipal workers face that music, the last thing in the world we, through our elected representatives ought to be doing is rubbing their faces in it just because we can. It's not good business or good politics, and it's certainly not good employee relations. Motivated people move faster.


As always, your thoughts and ideas are welcome.


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