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Management Challenge: When you need an employee to go "the extra mile"

by Bruce TulganJuly 2016

   If “productivity” is about speed and “quality” is about slowing down to think, then how shall we define “going the extra mile”?

   Managers ask me, “What about the employee who does just enough work and does it just well enough and nothing else? How do you motivate that person to go the extra mile?”

   This is usually not the “bare minimum” employee, but at least a notch up. The manager wonders of this person, “Why not try just a little bit harder? Why not do just a little bit more?” Instead, the manager should explain this “extra mile” expectation to the employee in question, in concrete terms, as a regular part of their ongoing one-on-one dialogue. Often managers balk at that advice: “That misses the whole point! I shouldn’t have to tell him.”

   I ask, “Should your employee be reading your mind?”

   Managers often say, “I want this employee to meet fully the formal expectations and even exceed them. And then—-on his own initiative—- to see what else he can do to help, and then –on his own initiative—- do it!” To which I always say, “So why not just explain to them, frequently and enthusiastically, that ‘going the extra mile’ is the expectation?”

   I was having this very conversation with a restaurant manager in one of my seminars (I’ll call him “Res”). Res kept insisting, “That’s just setting the bar higher. So now the real expectation is the old expectation plus going the extra mile.” My response: That’s exactly right! Let’s face it. When you complain that your direct reports are not going above and beyond expectations, you are obviously trying to raise the bar. So raise it! Spell out that higher expectation as clearly as possible.

   The reason this is not an entirely satisfying response is that when managers like Res complain that their employees don’t “go the extra mile,” they are really saying they want employees to think of it on their own ‘initiative.’ Why is that so important? Res offered this example: “Take a busboy. He’s setting tables, pouring water, delivering plates, clearing plates all night long. . . One busboy walks by the salad bar and there’s a crouton out of place, he cleans it up on his way to the kitchen without ever breaking his stride. Another guy walks past the salad bar over and over again and never notices it’s a total mess. Those are just two different kinds of people. How can you teach someone to care?” I’ve come to realize that this whole “extra mile” thing has deeper implications for some managers. Some managers are trying to get at some constellation of character issues—- work ethic, motivation, commitment, energy, or effort. I say: Don’t go there. Why bother?

   You probably can’t teach someone to care and it wouldn’t be appropriate in your management relationship anyway. But you can require that the busboys stop and check the salad bar once every fifteen minutes or so. Some will do it much more diligently than others. In your one-on-ones with the more diligent busboy, provide recognition and reinforcement and rewards if you possibly can. And in your one-on-ones with the less diligent busboy, spell it out again: “Once every fifteen minutes, walk through the salad bar and clean up anything that is out of place. Are you with me? Are you sure? Let’s write it down and create a checklist for the next shift.” Then follow-up in your next one-on-one until that busboy is a salad-bar cleaning superstar or else a former employee.

   I asked Res, “Are you sure you want that busboy taking initiative all the time? What if, for instance, the busboy thought a nice way to ‘go the extra mile’ was to give customers back massages while they dine? Or if he decided it would be nice to give customers free sodas?” For an employee to truly demonstrate ‘initiative,’ it would have to be completely self-starting action. In that sense, employees would be taking ‘initiative’ only when they are doing things that were precisely not expected of them. Surely, sometimes those would be wonderful unexpected things, but sometimes they would likely prove to be not such great initiatives after all. Take a step back, do you really want to teach employees to ‘take initiative’ by getting them to focus on doing things that are precisely not expected?

   Here’s what Res and I worked out: An “extra-mile-list” for busboys. What would be all the ways that a busboy, doing his job as best he can, could take those extra moments in between his other tasks and add some real value by doing something above and beyond? The list mostly included “area patrols” – like the salad bar. But there were other items on the list too. And Res made an “extra-mile-list” for waiters, kitchen staff, and greeters. He rolled it out to the team and they ran with it. Res worked with every team to develop an “extra mile” list. Then Res and his assistant managers started including “extra-mile-ism” in their regular coaching. They made it fun and attached prizes and rewards for “excessive extra-mile-ism.” Within just a few weeks, Res sent me an email saying, “Everyone is caught up in ‘extra-mile-ism’ – trying to outdo each other. We are climbing over each other to do more. It’s a big win.”

   Instead of wishing for employees to meet a bunch of unspoken expectations, let people know exactly what it would look like for them to “go the extra mile” in their particular roles.

   Start talking about going the “extra mile” in your regular one-on-one dialogues:

     1. Make an “extra mile” list for yourself. What would it look like for you to go the extra mile in your role? After you do your job very well, very fast, all day long. In those extra moments. What are some extra ways you can add value? This will give you a bit of perspective.

     2. Ask every one of your direct reports to make an “extra mile” list for himself.

     3. Review each employee’s “extra mile” list. Perhaps talking through it together you will both learn a few things. Sometimes managers are surprised to find that items on the employee’s “extra mile” list would have been on the manager’s list of basic performance expectations. Together create a working “extra mile” list for that employee. Remember, this is always a moving target.

     4. Encourage employees to “keep score” for themselves on how often they complete items on the “extra mile” list. Take note of those who do and those who don’t score a lot of “extra mile points.” For those who do, provide recognition, reinforcement, and rewards whenever you can. For those who don’t, ask once in a while, “Why not?”

By making the opportunity to ‘go the extra mile’ concrete, you give a lot more people the chance to excel in ways they might not have ever come up with on their own. They might not ever have realized it was something they could do or should do, or that you actually expected them to do. Now you are telling them, “These are concrete opportunities to excel. Go get ‘em!”

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