Employee Engagement Leadership Motivation Potential Productivity

4 Key Characteristics of a Leader That People Want to Do Their Best For

You can’t make people give you discretionary effort

There are 4 key characteristics of a leader that people want to do their best for…

I was meeting a business contact for a coffee recently and we started talking about getting the best out of people. My contact works in an industry that can be quite hierarchical and rules driven and can struggle to engage people. The question he asked was “how do you get people to work harder”?

One of the challenges of leading people is the ever increasing pressure of doing more with less. Budgets are tighter and expectations are higher now than they were even five years ago. Organisations are pushing to be leaner, faster, better – so how can you help your people to be as productive as possible?

Watch now (3 mins watch time) or read on.

What I hear from leaders:

“It’s a Generation Y thing! They don’t have the work ethic we do”.

“My organisation has a big problem with sick leave on Monday’s and Friday’s”

“I need something done and nobody wants to stay back, not even for fifteen minutes”

“My people work well enough to keep their jobs, but not an ounce more”

What I hear from employees:

“We used to have morning teas for people’s birthdays, but as a cost cutting measure we stopped. And training? Forget it”!

“I have met the CEO at least ten times, but every time we have to be re-introduced and she clearly has no idea who I am, or even that she has met me before”

“We used to have a happy workplace, but the new management has stopped that. They said our balloons were a safety risk”.

“I just can’t be bothered. It’s just a job, right”?

And the big question that I am occasionally asked by managers…. “How do I make people be more productive”?


What they are referring to is called discretionary effort – it is the “going above and beyond what is required of me” that people have in reserve. And you can’t “make” people give it to you. It is their choice to use it… or not.

At the end of the day, as long as the job doesn’t really stink, most people will put up with something that doesn’t really push their buttons but it pays the bills. What you get from people is an input in return for the pay packet. Sounds reasonable.

The funny thing about people though is that most of us want more. We want to be contributing to something meaningful, to be adding value and to go home at the end of the day and say “I did something that made a difference”. People also want to be connected to others. It is a deep instinct of ours to operate in families, tribes and collectives. We work much better when we are contributing to something that matters and we are working with people we are connected with. It is called engagement. Give people that and you will tap into discretionary effort.

Interestingly, and probably no surprise, the leader has the biggest impact on employee engagement.

There are 4 key characteristics of a leader that people want to do their best for:

  • The leader is competent, visionary and results oriented – I understand my goals, and the role I play in the big picture.
  • The leader is confident, self-respecting and non-defensive – I see consistent, ethical and fair behavior from my leader.
  • The leader encourages growth and development and is a good role model – I can learn from my leader.
  • The leader is good at relationships and genuinely cares about me as a person – I feel connected and I trust my leader.

Now there are many organisational and cultural aspects that also inhibit engagement, (for example, lack of recognition) but look first at what you can change about your leadership style to motivate, connect and engage.

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