A recent opinion column at the BMJ has shone a light on the extent to which leaders should expect staff to go the extra mile. 
In the 13 March piece, acute medicine consultant David Oliver takes issue with remarks from NHS England chair David Prior at a February meeting organised by the think tank Reform. Oliver laments that Prior “criticised the commitment and discretionary effort of staff, lamenting that they wouldn’t stay at work to help out beyond contracted hours – for instance, in the emergency department when they were ready to go home”.
Oliver writes: “Grandstanding, controversial comments about the staff who do all of the patient-facing work don’t sit well with such a role.” He adds: “I’m not sure how well qualified or wise Prior is to be so critical of frontline staff, having never worked in a clinical or operational management NHS role.”
That aside, Prior was highlighting a perennial management obsession: how do you encourage staff to exceed either the terms of their job descriptions, or their hours? And is that something that leaders even should do?
Coincidentally, on the very same day that Oliver’s article emerged, business analysts Gartner published the latest edition of its Global Talent Monitor: a comprehensive, quarterly survey of staffing habits and employee outputs around the world. It noted: “Employees’ willingness to go above and beyond at work, and their intent to stay with their employer, both increased across all geographies at the end of 2018.” 
While this may sound like great news, it is in fact little more than a blip on the screen – for the rise breaks a downtrend that had marred five previous quarters, indicating that, of late, staff have been somewhat reluctant to push the boat out.
Gartner group vice president for HR Brian Kropp said: “With an uptick in the number of employees planning to stay in current roles, and increasing their discretionary effort at work, employers should consider how best to engage and retain their current workforce. One critical aspect of this is implementing a robust employee value proposition (EVP) that focuses on those key attributes that matter most to employees – career development opportunities, competitive wages and benefits packages, and work-life balance.”
That all sounds fine – but what form should an EVP of that nature take… and how should it be communicated to staff?
Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “All too often, we forget how sensitive employees are. We also fail to recognise that the relationships they have with their managers are rather fragile. If workers feel that they are being criticised by someone outside that relationship who, in their view, doesn’t really understand the job – as per the BMJ piece – then straight away, they get very defensive.
“Instead of hearing the message, which may – however clumsily expressed – contain traces of wisdom, their reaction will be to explain, make excuses or say that because the person bringing the message has never worked in a relevant role or business area, there’s no legitimacy to what they are saying.”
Cooper notes: “In a recent survey of 1,400 people, we found that the main reason why people leave their jobs is that they don’t feel valued. So how you value people is key not just to their broader employment intentions, but to their level of engagement and willingness to go that extra mile. You will put in discretionary effort in if you care. And you will care if you think that you’re making a difference in some way, and that the organisation is delivering a product or service that, beyond its intrinsic utility, happens to align with your own values.”
She adds: “If you look at wages, office hours, benefits packages and career development, they all provide avenues for communicating to employees that you care about them. This is where flexible-working policies come in – plus a generosity with leave days. Not necessarily in numerical terms, but of managers giving staff more time off for, say, family emergencies, without those unpredictable events becoming bones of contention.
“There should be an open and magnanimous attitude towards the unavoidable fact that, from time to time, people’s lives are disrupted. That attitude is very much at leaders’ discretion. And that’s the fundamental point, here: if we expect something discretionary from our workforce, it’s only right for them expect something discretionary from us.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on managing performance