How to begin engaging others to achieve high performance

Most businesses are seeking to get the very best from the people that work for them. Here’s what’s often missing.  If you want enduring full engagement and if you would like to access the holy grail of productivity – discretionary effort, then the place to start is by creating a compelling and exciting direction for those who follow you.

You won’t get that result from merely setting goals. In fact the current fixation by nearly all company management is on metricized goals. These goals certainly do create activity, almost in a frenetic way. They definitely won’t though unleash discretionary effort.  Focusing on goals create a compliance mentality rather than commitment. (Think of what bad things happen to someone when goals are not met.) Only commitment unleashes discretionary effort.

The reason that setting a direction for your work group, department, division or company is likely to compel employees to put in extra effort is that by setting a direction the leader:

Creates focus for the staff so that they can devote themselves to one compelling outcome. It also allows you the opportunity to reinforce team development with those responsible for implementing the direction.

Creates energy and excitement in people so that they contribute extra effort rather than just going through the motions.

Allows people to tap into their desires which is absolutely critical to unleash discretionary effort.

Increases the likelihood that the leader’s preferred end result (the direction) is achieved instead of the conflicting actions that are the result of too many goals.

What do I mean by a compelling direction?  A direction is a description of a preferred future state for the organization. Another term for this is a vision. It should be designed with the following elements in mind:


Does it fit the needs of important constituents i.e. stakeholders. They should primarily be customers and employees, not senior management. In addition there must be a sound strategic direction that will support the direction.


How is it realistically possible to achieve the vision while its success is not guaranteed? This means that your direction must go beyond what is going to occur if your department just fulfills its goal obligation, yet not so far-reaching that it appears impossible.


It is only when your direction touches and reinforces your employees values, (the deep-seated reasons for why they work for you and your company), that you be able to excite them to perform at higher levels.

Developing the direction

As a leader your first step is to conduct an environmental assessment of your area of responsibility and from there to develop a strategic direction.

The next step is to create a pithy, concise statement of the preferred future state for your department or function. This statement should ideally not include numbers, but if it does then it should be restricted to a ranking number e.g. “be #1 compared to our peers in providing excellent customer service.” Do not exert too much intellectual brainpower on this.    Wordsmithing will be the death of you.

Here are examples:

“Let’s create a relaxed customer experience while being the most trusted stewards of our customers money.” (Financial Institution.)

“We intend to provide our customers with the best online shopping experience from beginning to end, with a smart, searchable website, easy-to-follow instructions, clear and secure payment methods, and fast, quality delivery.” (Online Retailer.)

“Our [Amazon’s] vision is to be earth’s most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”

Notice how none of these examples have numbers or metrics and they also meet our criteria of desirability, feasibility and inspirational.

It is important to deemphasize numbers or dates from inclusion in the direction.  Being #1 may be as far as you want to go.  Better you have descriptive words that come alive e.g.  “We will be an agile business partner solving client problems in ways that compel them to implement our solutions.”

While setting a compelling direction or vision is a necessary condition by itself for unleashing discretionary effort, and accelerating team development, it is not sufficient. To gain sufficiency it is important to create alignment i.e. a buy in to the direction by those who will need to achieve it.  (See my next blog about how to create alignment.)