Do you want the same? OR do you want me to try to do a better job?

I laughed inside when the hair dresser asked me if I wanted a better job than last time. Of course!

In the same way, would any employee need to ask a supervisor, “Do you want me to work better today?” Naturally managers want employees to daily look for ways to increase their involvement and mental energy on their projects. Even though it may seem obvious that employers want employees to make steady progress, the big challenge for employers is enhancing discretionary effort; in other words, motivating the individual to give more than is required to get a paycheck.

To motivate employees, first analyze their work attitude, but don’t be deceived by the silent, compliant workers. You will see employees who, inhibited by the fear of getting in trouble, quietly complete work and meet deadlines, and others who ask questions, give feedback, and make suggestions to improve the product or service. Surprisingly, these workers who may come across as noisy and irritable are actually primed for giving discretionary effort.

For the employees who dutifully fulfill the requirements of their job description but show no signs of mental engagement, such as giving an opinion, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is the work relevant to the employee?
  • Are they doing work they WANT to do or HAVE to do?
  • Are they aligned with the company vision, mission and goals?
  • Are they excited about the intellectual discovery the job gives them?
  • Do they feel they are making a contribution to the growth of the company and their own career growth?
  • If they are doing routine work, are they bored?

When you ask yourself these questions about each employee and honestly seek to find the answers, or to “surface the truth,” let your interactions and perceptions evolve. Truth is often a puzzle. As you check on the progress of tasks, resist the urge to command, “Don’t forget, finish the report by Friday.” Instead, ask how the project is coming and if there are any obstacles to finishing on time. Observe workers’ body language, look into their eyes, and listen to their tone of voice for the real clues to the truth of their words. For example, should an employee weakly respond that everything is “Fine,” then counter, “How can we help to make it great?” Don’t ignore the concealed complaints.

Similarly, if you receive negative signals from employees, ask more questions to see if they find their work exciting and challenging to their intellectual aptitude.  Do they need coaching on a certain aspect of the project that may not be in their range of experience? People generally don’t ask for help because they don’t want to be seen as incompetent and thereby risk their employment.  Consequently, they need to be reassured that asking questions and indicating the need for help will lead to greater collaboration and learning.

When employees feel challenged, significantly occupied, and safe to seek help, they will not simply conform to managerial requests—they will give discretionary effort. When employees give discretionary effort, they are adding value to the work they process. Added value translates into better products, happier customers, and economic sustainability to your company.