Creating a high-performance workplace by tapping into discretionary effort

A company’s culture is foundational to the future success of a business, impacting all corners of your organisation from engagement and productivity to retention.

Just as a healthy culture can’t be faked, nor can it be ‘created’ through superficial perks like happy hours and fancy coffee. A high-performance culture comes from empowering your team and shifting them from merely showing up to giving discretionary effort.

According to Aubrey C Daniels, founder and chairman of the board at performance management consultancy ADI: “Discretionary effort is the level of effort people could give if they wanted to, but above and beyond the minimum required.”

It’s about moving from ‘good enough’ to ‘great’ when it comes to employee output. Recognising that discretionary effort comes from fostering a certain environment and culture gives managers an inroad to unlocking the full potential of their teams.

But before we look at what makes a great work culture, let’s talk about what makes a bad one.


Think about what you don’t want

In a past life, I partnered with PlanetK2 who work with elite athletes to drive high performance and apply the learnings to a corporate environment. They listed signs that show your work culture is toxic and therefore performance limiting.

The list includes blaming people first, solution later; results are the only thing that matters; it’s my way or the highway type of attitude. Working in an environment like this inhibits productivity at all levels and can even negatively impact the personal lives of your employees.

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What we do want

So, what’s a better alternative? There are three main take outs here:


1. Focus on performance rather than results

Companies who are solely focused on results encourage negative behaviours. If you think about a business that cares about nothing but the sale, then the staff will be incentivised to behave in a way that focuses only on the sale. They will lie and cheat in order to get the sale and the customer experience will suffer as a result.

If you are only focused on winning pitches, but don‘t think about our performance throughout the pitch process, then opportunities to learn and refine that process are missed.


2. We need to fail in order to learn

Otherwise, we’ll fail to learn and not just when things go badly. At the 2008 Olympics the Team Pursuit GB cycling team broke the world record in the heats before smashing their own record again and winning the gold medal. When they came off the track they were interviewed and asked about their performance and team member Paul Manning said ‘Well, we’ll need to look at the tape to see what we can improve.’

Can you believe that? After smashing their own record and winning a gold medal? His first thought was wanting to see what they could improve.

In 2012, they went on to break the world record at every qualifying round. This shows how focusing on learning, even when successful, drives further success. Failure should be seen as an opportunity and a steppingstone on the way to success, not as the opposite of success. It’s all about how you frame the experience as to whether it becomes an obstacle or a motivation. Disempowering or empowering.


3. Putting measures into place to review performance

Shift your focus from the results and give yourself a holistic view of what went well throughout the entire process.

One way of doing this is to introduce something called a ‘No blame autopsy’ where, after a key performance moment, the team is given the opportunity to sit down and review everything from the start of the project through to final delivery – regardless of the result.

This judgement-free review gives all team members the space to honestly appraise their performance without feeling a need to defend themselves and is highly valuable in identifying areas for improvement.

For this to happen there needs to be trust

For a ‘No blame’ review to take place, and for any meaningful team and culture building to occur, there needs to be trust.

A recent Google study on team performance revealed that the highest-performing teams all have one thing in common: psychological safety – the belief that you won’t be punished for your mistakes.

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As the old adage goes, 'There’s no team without trust' and creating a culture of trust within your own team will yield higher levels of engagement, increased motivation, better performance and more learning and development opportunities – all types of behaviours that lead to market breakthroughs.

Building a culture of trust in the workplace is a slow and deliberate process. Trust may be fragile but can grow strong over time with intentional actions and communication. Making your team feel safe and encouraged will create access to their discretionary efforts, which will not only be good for business, but for the organisational culture and workforce as a whole.


Jo Olsen is interim chief people officer at Three Whiskey