Employees become your competitive advantage when they freely give you discretionary effort – when they give you creative solutions to problems, innovative ideas for new products or services, exceptional customer service, and an extra mile to meet deadlines.

To turn employees into your competitive advantage, start a discretionary effort initiative in your organization. Discretionary effort means that employees do more than is required. They create value when they complete a task or tackle a project. Discretionary effort is a choice employees make daily and is related to the organizational climate and their relationship with their immediate manager.

These five steps will help managers earn the gift of discretionary effort, turning employees into a competitive advantage.

1. Practice Integrity.

Integrity is doing what you say you will do. Be careful what you promise in conversations with an employee with whom you want to create rapport and loyalty. Keep in the forefront of your mind that integrity means you treat employees fairly (not necessarily the same). Therefore, in a conversation with one employee, keep in mind what you will have to give to other employees to maintain integrity. Also, do not make statements that others can misinterpret.

2. Ensure Safety.

Are your buildings safe places to work? Is your parking lot well lit? Do you have a security guard to keep unwanted visitors out of your offices? If you can answer “yes” to these questions, you know your workers are sure they will go home in the same condition they arrived. They feel physically safe. The next step is to make them feel psychologically safe, which leads us to step three.

3. Extend Social Acceptance.

Extending social acceptance means you accept new hires and people already working for you as they are. Each person is an entire package of strengths, limitations, mental capabilities, education and life experiences. Take employees as they are, respect them and value them. When you listen to them with unbiased ears, and they are free to give you the truth as their eyes see it, you are giving them psychological safety. Listen to their aspirations, and give them growth opportunities. They will see a bright future and give you and the company their loyalty.

4. Help Them Rationally Align.

Once employees are treated with integrity, feel safe in their surroundings and feel accepted, the next step is to help them rationally align to the organization’s goals and objectives. The organizational values, mission and vision need to be crystal-clear. Then, rational alignment is a function of time management: setting clear goals, breaking the goals into components, assign those components to employees and make them accountable to meet the deadline. With all of this information, they can then decide whether or not they can mentally, emotionally and rationally align with the organization. When they say “yes” internally to rational alignment, you have employees who will give you discretionary effort and become your competitive advantage.

5. Be Grateful.

Showing gratitude to employees for their contributions is the icing on the cake when it comes to turning employees into your competitive advantage. Regularly saying “thank you” when you are face to face, sending a “thank you” email, acknowledging them in a meeting, mentioning them to upper management, or going the old-fashioned route and writing a hand-written note solidifies their status as your competitive advantage and fortifies you against your competitors.

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