Food for Thought is our way of sharing interesting concepts on corporate leadership and management with others who might find it useful. The thoughts offered are intended to be controversial and thought-provoking. They are intended to help our readers intentionally realize their potential, what we call Potentionality.
“I’ll be down in two minutes, honey,” your wife shouts from upstairs. The two of you have plans to go out, and you’re impatient to leave. Now, how will you spend the next two minutes? You could sit and wait. Or you could take the recycling out to the garage and clean up the area. Of course, that’s going to take a bit longer than two minutes. But, hey, your wife is probably going to take longer, too. Then again, she could come down and be ready to go before you’re finished with the task. So which is it going to be? Do you try and make use of the extra time? Or are you the kind of person that would rather not start a project that you might have to abandon early?
Each of us can broadly classify ourselves as a simplifier or a maximizer, suggests Jaclyn Chambers, a Ph. D. student at the University of California, Berkeley.
Simplifiers try not to complicate life. The value of simplicity for them far exceeds any value they might give up by not having opportunities. Maximizers, on the other hand, constantly look for ways to best accomplish the task at hand, even if in doing so, their lives get measurably more complicated.
You are at the grocery store picking up ingredients for a recipe. One of the ingredients on the list is white asparagus. Your grocery shopping pattern is to enter the store near the produce department, pick up all the produce you need, walk along the other aisles as needed and end up at the dairy department at the other side of the store. Darn! They don’t have white asparagus. Perhaps you’ll have to substitute green asparagus. For the simplifier, the story ends there. The maximizer, however, needs to move on to the canned vegetables aisle to see if they have canned white asparagus. And, even when they find the canned variety, they will still be debating in their minds whether canned white asparagus is a better option or whether they might be better off going back to the produce department for fresh green asparagus. For the maximizer, these decisions are important. They will determine the ultimate quality of the dish they plan on preparing. The simplifier, meanwhile, has already paid for their groceries and is happily driving home with the fresh green asparagus.
The compromise between simplifying your life and maximizing your value is a personal decision, where the benefit and the cost are both accrued by the individual. It is a self-contained trade-off. But one is faced with the same choice at work, where simplifying makes the employee’s life easier and maximizing makes the company’s value higher. The employee decides how much extra work to put in and generate a higher value for the company.
This binary concept of simplifiers and maximizers can be extended to a broader continuum, called discretionary effort. Imagine a scale — 0 to 10 — of the discretionary effort each employee is willing to exert. Although different employees will be willing to exert different levels of discretionary effort, your company culture likely defines the minimal amount of discretionary effort expected. Repeated failure to exert that minimum level will likely be considered poor performance. Each organization naturally settles on some acceptable level of discretionary effort. Let’s consider some examples.
The manager of an Olympic team training in the high elevations of the Rockies expects a certain amount of discretionary effort from the aspiring athletes assembled to practice. On that scale of 0 to 10, where do you think the manager’s expectations lie? Do you think an athlete is going to hold their seat on the team with a 9.9 discretionary effort? Not a chance. The manager expects a 10 from every athlete. In contrast, what do you think that minimum required level of discretionary effort is at the post office or the DMV? If you accept the stereotype associated with those institutions, it is probably closer to zero. Going along with stereotypical characterizations, the minimum levels of discretionary effort expected in fast-paced high-tech companies like Intel, Apple and Google are likely to be much higher than in traditional, stable industries such as auto manufacturers. In any case, each company unwittingly establishes a minimum level of discretionary effort.
What is the minimum level at your company?
The discretionary effort exerted by each employee is likely to be different. In fact, even the same employee is likely to give more or less depending on the task, the time of day, or any number of other factors. But what is most surprising is how employees will calibrate and recalibrate their discretionary efforts based on a changing frame of reference. Ask anybody who, having played in backwater distribution channels, stumbled upon an opportunity with Dell, Costco or Walmart. All of a sudden, your employees’ notion of “working hard” takes on a whole new meaning. As your frame of reference expands, your estimate of your discretionary effort declines. You realize that you have to up your game.
One way to do it is to pin down that number. Declare the current minimum expectation in your company to be, say, 6. (The choice of this number is not that important.) But also declare that every year your frame of reference will broaden, causing your definition of a 6 to be higher this year. Create a culture of constant introspection and promote examples of discretionary effort exhibited this year that stand apart from previous years.
The question may arise: When does this stop? It doesn’t. When you are ready to stop, hang up your coat and call it retirement.
We welcome your comments on our Food for Thought mailings and encourage you to explore the Food for Thought archive. We hope your business is doing well. We’re happy to chat about the content of this article or anything else which you’d like assistance.