HR professionals (even enlightened ones) and business consultants often talk about the "fact" that employees generally are giving 80% effort and the having them fully engaged can bring them up to 100% plus (110% or 120%) effort. This gap is called discretionary effort and is the recipe for business success.

Our mission involves helping people (and thus businesses) acheive their full potential; so I am all over the idea in general. But, as with anything, you need to really understand what it means.

Defining Max Effort

To me 100% effort means holding back nothing; giving it your all. So what does someone mean when they say I am going to try 110% or 120%?

It reminds me of a trick our drill sergeant played on one person who dropped his rifle on the parade square (this is considered a very bad thing in the military). After making the guy run around the parade square many times with his rifle above his head, then making him do push-ups until he dropped, the sergeant approached the poor guy who was collapsed on the ground and said "Why did you stop?" The guy replied "I can't do anymore push-ups." The sergeant said "Give me one more and you can stop." So the guy dug deep and did one more. The sargent then screamed at him "You lied to me, you said you couldn't do any more push-ups." and sent him off to run around the parade square some more. (You can't win in these situations as the rules are not constant.)

That was approaching 100% effort. So striving for greater than 100%? Figure of speech or exaggeration.

 Now I am not saying this is a good way to motivate or engage your employees, but the point is, defining maximum effort is a tricky business. In most cases people always have a little more than they can give; but at some point the price is pretty high.

Is It Really Effort You Want?

The example also brings up the question. What did all those push-ups accomplish?

The guy didn't drop the rifle on purpose. He just failed to catch it after one particular step in the process that we were all just learning and perfecting. It could have happened to anyone. I could have been the guy doing push-ups.

From a business perspective, do you really want extra effort from your employees or do you want maximum results? Working a few extra hours on something that didn't really need to be done is not really the goal.

Setting the Bar

I think great managers set the bar at excellence, not average. This is very important and distinguishes great managers from average ones. But excellence implies performing a role or function to deliver excellence; not merely working really hard (effort). It is the outcome that is important. The top of excellence is 100% and is more a constant goal than a destination (what is excellent today may be average tomorrow).

Keeping It Simple

Make it easy to ask for excellence. Make it easy for employees to deliver excellence.

Assuming you've done a good job on selecting an employee, the manager's job is to: set expectations via outcomes, provide any required training and coaching, and then remove any external barriers to their team achieving excellence.

The key is that you have selected the right employee (based on talents) for the right role and the person fits your culture and can stand behind your mission.

I subscribe to the premise that most employees want to do a great job and want to do work that they enjoy and also matches their talents. If you are capable of doing the work (talents, skill and knowledge), you enjoy doing it, and you have the tools and environment to support it all, you are having fun, who wouldn't strive to give their best?

You Can't Outsource Great Management

Great businesses are run by great leader(s) and great manager(s).  Business leadership sets strategic direction including mission, vision, goals… and most importantly company culture.

The number one reason for leaving a job? Bad manager.

A manager's primary role is to achieve the business's goals by maximizing the results from each of their team members. The manager has to know their people. Employees need to trust and receive recognition from their manager. This is an extremely important relationship in achieving excellence. It is also a balancing act.

You can get advice and guidance from HR, consultants and other outsiders. You can read and learn. You can delegate administrative tasks.

But ultimately, to build a great business (large or small) you need a minimum of one great leader and one great manager. If you are lucky, you may have both in one person. If not, hire for the missing talent.

Managers, not the HR department, are your best strategy for maximizing employee engagement.


To achieve excellence, to get 100% employee engagement, to become a great company (no matter your size) you need to keep the core of of who you are close.

If you don't own your mission, vision, goals and culture as a business owner, you might really be working for someone else.

You need to own the core, not outsource it. You can sometimes outsource core predictable and repetitive work. Great management is part of the core that should not be outsourced.