My 33-year-old son recently remarked, “People no longer marry their jobs – they just date them.” Having worked for virtually every casual-themed restaurant chain in America, he speaks from experience. When his comment finished sinking in, I realized two things: 1) He’s right, and 2) That statement is pretty profound.

Not long ago, Economist.com ran a piece summarizing a European Union survey of the average job tenure of workers in each of 17 countries throughout Europe and North America. The average job span ranged from four years in the U.S. to 13 years in Greece. Even with the less-than-stellar odds that come with wedding vows, four years is still probably closer to dating territory than marriage, right? Score one for the kid.

When one considers the amount of fooling around that occurs early in a relationship (work or personal), and the absolute dysfunction that exists in the breakup stage, there isn’t a lot of productive time in the middle. So, in the workplace, managers are faced with about a three-year window that is largely devoid of loyalty, commitment and – but for occasional outbreaks – passion. We’re just dating!

It should be no surprise then that in one “engagement” study after another (e.g., Towers Perrin, Gallup), people are shown to be operating with the ol’ effort meter at something well shy of “balls to the wall.” More specifically, most people are, by their own admission, contributing only 60 to 70 percent of their maximum effort to their job. But here’s where it gets interesting; most folks allow that, under the right circumstances, they could and would contribute more effort … a lot more. In other words, inside each of us, there is a wellspring of effort – discretionary effort (we call it, “oomph”) – just waiting to get out. Sadly, too much of it goes home at day’s end, unspent.

There are many ways managers can tap into this discretionary effort, which is one of the greatest natural (and free) sources of competitive advantage. On the premise that the default position for oomph for most people is “on,” one of the smartest things we manager types can do is to avoid turning the spigot off. What follows are some thoughts:

Work needs to matter
When people begin to entertain the question, “What’s the point?” their “oomph” pumps start shutting down. That happens when they begin to question whether their jobs have any real value to anyone – their managers, the organization or, most of all, customers.

With alarming regularity, managers assign people to a project, creating the impression that the resultant work will be applied to some important organizational need. Initially, the worker exerts significant discretionary effort, proudly presenting the finished product to the manager who requested it. When the product is then relegated to the shelf, never to see the light of day, the worker learns that it’s not in his or her best interest to put too much into such requests. “Oomph” off.

Standards are lax
In some organizations, it doesn’t seem to matter if the work is done well, only that it gets done. People soon adopt the stance that, “If my manager doesn’t care whether or not I knock myself out, I certainly don’t.”

Hardworking people want to work in the company of equally competent, committed and honest individuals. They will pull someone else’s weight for a while, especially if there’s a good reason, one they understand. But they’re loath to bear others’ yokes for the duration of the journey. Similarly, when managers turn a blind eye to dishonest, unethical or unprofessional behavior, there are serious downside implications for discretionary effort. It sends signals you don’t want to send, and slows things down by diluting trust.

One of the surest, fastest ways to tank “oomph” is by lowering your hiring and performance standards.

Jeromy Williams, owner-operator of a Jacksonville, Fla., Chick-fil-A – a company widely known and appreciated for utilizing the discretionary effort of its employees – says, “Everybody goes through three interviews. We don’t just hire people off the street. We’ll all work twice as hard for as long as we have to until we find the right one.”

With a little luck and some hard work, we should be surrounded by people who are eager to do good work, and proud of it when they do. Why is it then that so many of these bright, well-intentioned employees end up losing their “oomph”? Here are five reasons why …

  1. Because managers have the audacity to tell people that they are “empowered” to do their work, yet they place ridiculous limits on their ability to fix problems and satisfy customers. If your people can’t unilaterally commit an amount of the company’s funds equivalent to a month of their salary or wages to satisfy a customer, stop using the term “empowered.”
  2. Because there’s a “supervisor” for every six or seven worker bees. Do your people really need that much supervision? Are they that incompetent?
  3. Because managers bail their people out constantly or, worse, take over when they see them struggling. “Oh, forget it. I’ll just do it myself.” Truth be known, everyone needs the benefit of some real live fire practice opportunities. As Mark Twain put it, “A man who carries a cat home by the tail learns 10 times as much as one who only watches.”
  4. Because too often, managers burden folks deemed bright, experienced and well-intentioned when they’re hired with a “To-Don’t List” of policies and procedures that cause them to lose any appetite for using their brains. Or, because managers insist on personally reviewing and approving any information, recommendations or reports that are destined for points north of them in the food chain.
  5. Because entirely too often, managers keep paying those who consistently require the kind of supervisory oversight spelled out in items 1 to 4 above.

It’s been said that, in the final analysis, you really can’t motivate people. While that’s an argument best left for another day, one thing is for sure: Work gets done a lot better and a lot faster if we don’t de-motivate our people in the first place. Good luck and Godspeed.

About the authors:
Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden are the authors of the newly released, “Contented Cows MOOve Faster.” The two founded Contented Cow Partners LLC to help business and organization leaders produce better results through a focused, fired-up and capably led workforce. For more information, visit www.ContentedCows.com.