To Achieve Greatness, Stop Aiming for Compliance

By James Elliott – August 10, 2022

When I was going through primary flight training, I discovered that we fly in a dynamic sea of air whose wind direction and magnitude are constantly shifting.  One thing you learn quickly is that you can rarely fly directly from one location to another without compensating for wind drift.  Often you have to fly a course ten to twenty degrees toward the direction of the wind so that you can arrive at your desired destination. If you focus on flying a direct path, you’ll get blown off course and fall short of your goal.

The same concept can be applied to compliance. This is the effort of meeting the minimal requirements of the various policies, procedures, rules, and regulations required by your business and industry.  If you focus entirely on being compliant, just like the wind blowing you off course, you and your team will not only fall short of compliance, but you will never be able to reach operational excellence and achieve greatness.

It’s human nature for people to take the path of least resistance. It’s a natural desire to put in just the minimum effort that’s required.  Unfortunately, the minimal effort more often than not leads to a culture of mediocracy. It takes solid leadership combined with a good management system to develop the discipline required in the organization to go beyond the minimum effort for compliance and be committed to achieving operational excellence and continual improvement.

The Effort Model (shown below) is a concept derived from the research and publications of Dr. William James on the topics of free will and effort.  Dr. James was born in 1842 and died at the age of 68 in 1910. He was a philosopher, historian, and psychologist.  Dr. James is considered to be a leading thinker of the late 19th century, one of the most influential philosophers in the United States, and the “Father of American psychology”.

The Effort Model is a qualitative continuum with a line at the bottom representing 0% effort and a line at the top representing 100% effort. 0% effort is just that. No effort. No energy expended. Essentially, it’s like staying in bed all day doing nothing.  On the other hand, 100% effort is exactly the opposite. It’s giving absolutely your all. 100% effort cannot be sustained for long periods of time. It’s like an Olympic athlete in the middle of a race.  They can go at 100% for a short time, but then must rest and recuperate or they risk getting injured.

Between the 0% and 100% lines lives the compliance and commitment lines.  The compliance line is around 20 to 30% effort. The definition of compliance is doing exactly what is expected of you.  No more. No less.  You arrive to work on time.  You follow all of the company’s rules to the letter. You do exactly what you are instructed to do. You leave work exactly on time. No under-performing, yet no extra effort.  You are compliant.

The commitment line is at about 70 to 80% effort. As an employee approaches the commitment line, they are already going above and beyond the call of duty. They take initiative. They go the “extra mile”. They take on collateral duties to help the organization succeed. The commitment line is considered the upper limit of reasonable employee effort. Sustained or continuous effort at or above the commitment line can be dangerous to employee morale and can lead to burn out resulting in the employee plummeting down toward the compliance line and/or leaving the organization altogether.

The area between the Compliance and Commitment lines is called Discretionary Effort. Most employees live in this zone with their amount of discretionary effort ebbing and flowing based on their current level of motivation.  It’s this level of motivation that is directly related to the quality of leadership in the organization.

All organizations will have a distribution curve of employee effort.  This distribution may be broad or narrow depending on the characteristics and culture of the organization. Nevertheless, a distribution curve will exist and by definition there will be a median; roughly half of the employees putting in more relative effort and half putting in less.

When an organization makes compliance it’s focus, it’s goal, the median of its effort distribution will tend to sit on the Compliance Line of the Effort Model (see red curve above).  This means that while approximately half of the employees are not only compliant, but going above and beyond expectations, the other half of the employees are not even reaching compliance. They’re not following safety rules, they have poor attendance, and the quality of their work is usually subpar. No organization can be successful when half of their employees are not even putting in enough effort to reach compliance.

If you want your organization to excel and be successful, as a leader you need to go beyond just achieving compliance, the bare minimum. Here are four things you need to do:

  • Make continual leadership develop compulsorily at all levels of the organization. Everything in your organization rises and falls on leadership. It is critical to its success. Strong leaders who are able to connect and build trusting relationships with their people are key to generating the positive motivation that will increase discretionary effort in the organization.  Leadership development goes far beyond sending employees to a class or workshop.  It also involves continual coaching, mentoring, and creating a learning culture.
  • Establish goals and processes that exceed the minimum requirements for compliance in all areas (safety, quality, etc.). Don’t be happy with just “compliance”.  Go above and beyond the status quo.  As a matter of fact, if you’re just managing the status quo, then you’re coasting. And anyone who rides a bicycle knows that if you’re coasting, you’re going downhill.
  • Adopt a proactive management system based on the Plan – Do – Check – Act (PDCA) process approach.  A management system consists of policies, procedures, and processes that are designed to encourage positive behaviors in your organization, discourage negative behaviors, and ensure that the organization is able to achieve its mission and objectives (see goals above).
  • Finally, integrate risk-based thinking and root cause problem solving into the fabric of your organization’s culture.  This powerful one-two punch combination is a critical component of all proactive management systems and will drive positive continual improvement in your organization.

If you do these four things, you’ll move the organization’s effort distribution curve up the scale on the Effort Model where the least productive of employees will at least be at the Compliance Line (see green curve above). Once your entire organization is at or above the compliance line, you’ll start building the powerful momentum that’ll drive operational excellence and allowing you and your organization to achieve greatness.