Jason is a global speaker author and employee engagement expert. He helps companies adapt workplace culture and Performance Management strategies. A former corporate human resource executive himself, Jason has dedicated his career to helping leaders build organizations that are good for both people and profits.

In this episode we digest what employee engagement means and the term “Discretionary Effort.” We delve into practical ways that companies can increase retention and employee happiness.

Enjoy this in depth conversation with Jason Lauritsen.


Jason’s new book, Unlocking High Performance


Josh: Ladies and gentlemen, this is Forging Employee Engagement. I am Josh Drean joined with Alexander Noren my co-host host.

Alexander: Welcome welcome

Josh: And we have a wonderful guest today. This is Jason Lauritsen. Jason is a global speaker author and employee engagement expert. He helps companies adapt workplace culture and Performance Management strategies. A former corporate human resource executive himself, Jason has dedicated his career to helping leaders build organizations that are good for both people and profits. Jason, how are you today?

Jason: I am outstanding thanks for having me. I love these conversations.

Josh: We love them as well. And we’re so grateful that you’re joining us. I just have one question for you. We are trying to get a good understanding on what is employee engagement?

Jason: That is that is an awesome and important question – great place to start. For me the way I define engagement, or at least currently where I’m at in my thinking, is that engagement is the degree to which an employee is both willing and able to perform to their potential. And so that to me is the is the bottom line and I think where so many definitions of Engagement go off course is that they’re not connected back to Performance. And so. So that’s where I am. That’s what I think it is and that’s how I think that’s how I advise people to think about it.

Alexander: That’s incredible. And one of the things to me that stands out in that definition is this idea of performing to their potential. Why is that so important to the definition?

Jason: Well, I think I think, I’ve found a comical that we’ve gotten so enamored with this idea of Discretionary Effort right? When you talk to people about engagement, my bet is that when you’ve done these other podcast that even people that have much bigger brains than me when you ask them to, you know, nail it down the definition that it comes back to this idea of discretionary effort. And for a long time, I’ve felt like “what the hell is discretionary effort?” and why would I care about I mean discretionary effort. It doesn’t make any sense to me. That sounds like something that was created to sell executives on spending money on tools and consulting as opposed to some sort of real thing. And so, in my mind, that’s not, you know, I don’t want to create a workplace where it’s a transactional thing. Where it’s a contract-based relationship, where I’m saying, “Well, you know, I’m going to pay you for x amount of effort, but then I’m going to try to do things to coerce you into giving more than that that’s discretionary that I’m not going to pay you for or compensate you for” and I that feels very weird to me. I think that’s part of what’s been wrong. And so, in my mind it’s about, I want to create a place, if we’re going to create a work experience or a workplace, It should be a place where I can come and be my best. And I would want to feel good about all of that. Feel good about my contributions; feel good about how I’m rewarded for that contribution that it sort of makes me feel whole and excited about work. As opposed to it being this sort of game of who can get the most or con the most out of the other party in a transactional kind of game-based setup. And so, that’s why I think it’s important. I think it should be about helping people be the best.

Alexander: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And what’s interesting about that concept of almost like a bartering system right in the workplace, right. Is that’s where we’ve been for so long, right? I mean you turn the clock back a couple of decades and it was very much a situation where, you show up the work you get paid to do your job. If you do your job. We will grace you with continued employment, you know. Employers held the stick there, you know. And as we’ve as we’ve kind of come up into this this new age, I think, where technology and the market and just the evolution of the workplace is such that, you know, people can move around a lot. We can shift. We can try to find different and better places to work. If we stick with this ideology of “hey, yeah, I’m going to I’m going to we’re going to swap here. I give you money you do something else,” and then, like you said, even if we try to mask it with that flavor of “oh and I’m also going to try to sweeten the deal with things that don’t cost me very much but will hopefully get more value out of you as the employee” that’s the same logic and that’s not going to fix the problem. And so, I love this idea that you’ve brought today this idea of helping people be their best, you know, people enjoy excelling. Would you agree? I think that’s what people want to do.

Jason: I think in what you said, there’s a couple of big Ideas that that are central to what I talk about when I’m talking about this issue of engagement experience. I write a lot about it in the book. The transactional nature of work that you talked about actually goes back to the beginning of work. From the you know, the dawn of the industrial era when we created sort of the seeds for modern management were sown. This was sort of as where we were sorting out how to make work something that was tolerable, safe and healthy for people at least at some level. It was the rise of unions and the birth of the labor contract that sort of gave birth to how we organize work and then everything else kind of got built around that and this idea of work as a contract came into our thinking and came into our model.  It has perpetuated for a century. We still today see that all the time and that’s really what you’re talking about, and was what I was hinting at is that that’s how most organizations are still treating it. I’m going to offer you a paycheck and in exchange here’s this job description with a list of things I’m going to hold you accountable to. Then I have all these other processes designed around enforcing compliance with that contract to make damn sure that we as the employer or getting our money’s worth out of this. And then we have this other program called engagement where I’m also going to try to trick you into giving me more than what I’m paying for in the contract model. It’s just a weird thing. And the problem is all of the employee engagement data that we have from the last 20 years points at the fact that employees don’t experience work as a contract. They experience work more like a relationship. They want to be valued feel valued and trusted and cared for and appreciated. And you know, it’s love – that’s what it is. We want to feel loved and cared for. And that’s what compels us to do more and be more, and that’s a very different thing than a contract. And so I think that’s the point in time where we’re at. I think that when we talk about being a human network or the human workplaces, I think that’s really what we’re talking about. It is that we’ve recognized that this is more about a relationship with the organization. Yet our organizations are still trying to treat work like a contract and there’s a real tension in there that we’re trying to resolve. I think that’s the work in the point where at in the evolution

Josh: Jason, I think you just outlined the problem so perfectly. And it’s really interesting when we talk about all of this data, and all of the numbers that are going into it and especially since engagement numbers are still abysmally low and to draw it back to a relationship and to love – that sounds fluffy.

Jason: Yep

Josh: But it is so absolutely necessary because if I’m an employee and I’m going to be spending a majority of my life at a desk with this company, it better be a place where I get along with it individuals; I feel like I’m treated fairly; and that I’m rewarded properly.

Jason: There’s no question about it. And you know it’s funny this business. I think it can be made to connect back. I mean if we’re measuring the right things through our survey and we were designing our surveys the right way and actioning the data in the right way, you can take the Fluffy and connect it back to the performance and the hard numbers that everybody wants to see. But I also think, you know at the end of our Lives when we look back at the stuff that we wish we had done more of the things that really mattered. It’s all fluffy and hard to measure.

Alexander: No one wants to look back on their life and say hey I accomplished a huge checklist of things.

Jason: Yeah and I discretionary efforted my ass off. You know, it’s not like you shouldn’t measure it. I think you have to be clear about what actually matters. And we’ve been going at it backwards, right? Whereas if we started on with an understanding that is a relationship. And so we need to be designing the work experience to feel like a healthy relationship and designing with a different set of design principles or design guidelines in mind as we create work experience. Then we can measure whether we’re actually accomplishing those things in a way that helps us also quantify whether that’s contributing to performance and outcomes that we care about. So, I think I think we’ve been coming at it the other direction and that’s where we’ve gotten off track.

Josh: You’re absolutely right. And so maybe on that vein, tell us a little bit about where companies go wrong with their employee meet Employee Engagement strategies, and maybe what is some practical advice that our listeners can walk away with.

Jason: That’s a great question. Well, I think. Where companies go wrong with Employee Engagement strategies as they fail to recognize that Employee Engagement itself is a measurement. If I said, you know, we have a profit strategy. You know, like you have a what strategy? it’s like well profit.  Well profit isn’t a strategy. Profit is a measurement of how you’re executing on, you know, your sales and marketing strategies, revenue generation strategies to accomplish those things. Then you also have you know, operational strategies and then sort of the gap between that is the profit that you’re making. That’s a measurements. Like you’re too far Downstream when you’re thinking about a strategy for profit. You need to move way back upstream. And so I the advice that I would offer is that, you know engagement is a measurement. It’s an outcome. What drives engagement is the experience that we create or that employees have every single day. So, it’s getting to really, you know, I think it’s thinking about what kind of experience are we trying to create. What kind of experience do we need to create in order to, you know, create not only the, you know, the employee experience, but to fuel the customer experience that we are trying to manifest in our organization, to live up to our values to do business in the right kind. What do we need to do to make sure that employees are having that experience every day. That might be in the conversations that they are having with their managers; the interaction the tools that they have available to them; the way that work feels to them; the way that their workplace feels to them – all of those things create. Each of these moments of truth every day either reinforce what you’re trying to create or not. And so I think if we from a strategy perspective started thinking about how do we design and create the kind of experience that will fuel what we’re trying to accomplish then then? You’d use engagement essentially to measure whether you’re being successful at that. That’s what engagement is. It’s a measurement of how well are we creating the expectation that we intended to create towards creating the outcomes that we need to create to be successful as an organization. So, it’s get upstream.

Alexander: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, you mentioned this idea of an experience. And you know, the idea of a company culture comes to mind. This kind of buzzword that I personally am not a huge fan of. it’s almost too popular these days and almost in my opinion means nothing because people always, you know, try to talk around this culture aspect. I don’t know, how would you relate the two is this your word for company culture, this idea of an experience or are there some key distinctions or is it the next level of the company culture as an experience. How would we tie these terms together?

Jason: You know company culture is another of those terms that that is representative of a major problem that we have when it comes to creating the workplace or the work environment. It is that we use words without defining them assuming everybody talks about it the same way. So I don’t think culture is necessarily a bad word, if you define it the right way. But I do think the point is a good one that I think culture probably needs to be defined more clearly in the context of employee experience; those two things are very similar. I tend not to talk a lot about culture. In my work, the language that I use tends to be focused in the realm of employee experience and performance motivation and how that impacts than the employees degree of Engagement and how willing and able they are to meet their performance potential. I think culture generally speaking, if I were to use it, would probably be used to describe intentions related to the experience that we create, on a day-to-day basis for employees.

Alexander: I couldn’t agree more and that’s and that’s my issue with the idea of culture. That’s where people stop when organizations try to tackle this cultural problem. Whenever I hear improving culture, I think of an organization bringing in a ping-pong table and throwing up some snacks and letting people wear jeans. Then they say, “Oh my gosh, look at our great culture.” And it’s like well, you did some stuff and it’s certainly not bad stuff.

It’s good stuff. But what have you done to, in your words, enhance the employee experience. I think that as a whole organizations try to pat themselves on the back saying “look how good we’ve done” but in reality, they haven’t really done enough to see any change.

Jason: Well, and I think that’s where we are when you aren’t focused on performance. When they talk to people and will talk about focusing on performance and outcomes and it feels cold and removed from the things like culture and experience. I don’t think that is at all the case because performance is the reason any organization exists. If you don’t have a performance imperative, you don’t need an organization, right. We exist to create value for someone else. Whether you’re a non-profit, you exist to create value for the communities you serve, or if you’re a business you exist to create some kind of value through product or service for people who will pay you for that. If you don’t have a performance imperative, you don’t need an organization. So you have to be connected to that. So I can create great experiences that people will enjoy but that experience has to move me towards a willingness and ability to perform in a way that contributes to meeting that performance imperative. A lot of times people just aren’t clear on the intention and that connectivity between why are we putting in the ping pong table? Because in some cases putting in that ping pong table might be exactly the right thing to do. In other cases, it’s not, because you don’t understand what your employees need and what you’re trying to accomplish and the experience you’re trying to manifest for people. I think a lot of times it boils down to just not doing the hard work of getting clear about your intentions and understanding how you create performance in your organization. And what because when you do a lot of this becomes more simple.

Josh: That’s right. And I think the Simplicity of tracking performance is let’s create a list of to do’s and have our employees check them off as they go along and that system is so antiquated. There are so many employees who just do the bare minimum or they find ways to get around the to-dos or they don’t feel valued. It’s really interesting to me that your book coming out. It’s called unlocking high performance. That is not about checking boxes. It’s about something deeper than that. Talk to us a little bit about that.

Jason: Well, that’s I think that’s the conversation we’re having today is really about how do we create a work experience in our organization. How do we sustainably create an experience for employees that invites them to give their best, to be their best, and to be their best in the way that the organization needs them to be to work towards that performance imperative, whatever that is for our organization. And so, the way that I approach this, and the reason I wrote the book and we positioned it the way we did, right now is that I do think we all agree that traditional Performance Management, the way it’s been with the way we’ve been doing it like you just described, is very broken. It doesn’t accomplish really any of the goals it was designed to accomplish. And so, we needed something different, and I think in that opportunity and that void, as we are trying to sort out what to do next, there’s this opportunity to build a system. And in the book, I call it a performance management system, which is truly a series of processes that’s about creating an employee experience that supports employees in living up to their or being able to perform at their own potential.

So it falls into it’s things like. Well, I break it into three buckets its processes related to expectations processes room, which I call planning processes related to motivation, which I motivation and some other things which I call cultivation and then processes connected to accountability and accountability in the punitive sense of accountability and that we are mutually committed to achieving the same things.

And so when you build all of those processes together, though, Same process as show up in any sort of healthy relationship. So bringing it back to the relationship construct when we have a healthy relationship that all shows up and when we assume the best of the other person then and I assume, you know, this connects back to a comment that that Alexander you made earlier which was.

When we assume people want to perform at their best, I’ve never met someone who doesn’t want to be successful when given the opportunity and the support to do so, it’s amazing how things change and what’s required to make that happen changes because you just need to get out of their way and make sure they understand where they’re going and what needs to be accomplished and that they have your support to do so, you know, it seems like a daunting task right for an organization to who you know, medium-sized Enterprise has a few hundred individuals.

Or Aid each of them being unique people, right? How do we how do organizations gather the information necessary to craft and promote a experience that will enable employees unique employees unique people to excel in their own in their own way. Wow, I don’t know that I can I can answer that in a quick way to death because that question that that’s the question I try to answer with like 80,000 words in my books.

What I what I would say is I’ll give you two quick things that I think are really important one is. That this is about first getting really clear. I you know, I’m going to hit this again, but it’s getting first clear about your intentions and it’s engaging. Jing with employees in the conversation about what kind of experience that is needed in order to facilitate this I think sometimes we Overlook the fact that the employees I mean there they want to participate they want to have a good experience so you can engage them in a conversation on an ongoing basis.

It’s kind of like you do in any other relationship like. But first maybe it’s not going to be perfect. But as long as we’re in a conversation and we’re both making adjustments and we’re calibrating it continues to get better over time. And so I think you have but you have to start with your intentions.

What kind of. What kind of experience are we intending to create and then making sure everybody knows that so that they can provide feedback when it either is or isn’t happening. So if I’m not if if you’re telling me you want me to have a really energizing experience of work every day and I’m walking out feeling drained and not getting any energy from work.

Then I need to let somebody know that we need to have a conversation about how to fix that. So without the intentions that that’s problematic. I think the other is. Being in that constant conversation in feedback, right and just being open and listening and being in the in the process with all employees and that requires that you have to be teaching your supervisors and managers how to have conversations on an ongoing basis is probably one of the most important things that you can do.

That seems it seems like it’s a little tough ride for organizations that if you tell me was it the chicken in the egg scenario, right? If you haven’t if you have issues with this sort of stuff you probably less inclined to start opening up communication, but you have to open up communication order to fix it and.

Yeah, that’s that is no small feat. I think for organizations that have done things a certain way for a period of time and to come in and say all right guys, let’s change some things maybe change every everything. Yeah. It’s not for the faint of heart. I mean that I think that’s why more organizations aren’t doing it is because it requires leaders that have some courage that are willing to be vulnerable and say, hey we know we’re not getting this right right now and we want to get it better and then I’m willing to lean into that and we’re willing.

Admit when we screw it up and and so that’s it. You know that has to start at the top and that’s why a lot of organizations pay lip service to engagement and they like doing a survey because it makes them, you know, it’s like owning a gym membership but not using it all that much. It makes you feel like you’re investing in your health, but you’re not actually getting healthier and there’s a lot of that going on.

So I think until you’re willing to do the work. But if you are you can do some exceptional things and I talked to some companies in the research for my book that blew my mind in terms of how they’re doing it and they’ve got it’s just it’s remarkable. It’s possible. You just have to have some courage and be willing to do some things differently.

Could you would it be fair to say that the the task of creating that experience of getting all of this done is impossible if if the executives the the top of the company really don’t care or aren’t as invested or like you said just paying lip service. Is that a fair statement to say that it is impossible to be successful at this on a company-wide level if the top management aren’t fully on board.

I don’t think it’s impossible at A Team level. I mean you can create as in you know, I kept that very much in mind as I was writing the book and as I talk to people, you know when I’m speaking or when I’m writing is that organizationally, can you transform an organization without leadership being bought in?

No. No, I mean if you’re if you’re a CEO, if you’re really passionate about this and your CEO doesn’t care about engagement and only just pretends to care because it seems like something he or she should do. Then you need to find someplace else to do this work because you’re not going to move the needle until they change.

And so and that’s a hard project. But what I would say is as a manager. Or a leader of an organization. You can’t fix some things about your organization, but you have tremendous power to create a different kind of experience within your organization. And that’s what you should be focused on like create the very best organ experience for the people that you can impact.

Because you can have a huge maybe not perfect, but you can make it a whole lot better than it is for for other people. And so that’s where I think you can really have an impact. If you’re stuck in an organization that may be at an executive executive level doesn’t get it yet. Yeah, that’s amazing Jason.

And as we wrap things up here, I just guess would ask you for some advice that you would have for these managers or these HR directors who are very much interested in making their environments a better place to work but are afraid of the task. What are some basic or start a things that you could share with them to get started?

Let’s say start with I think don’t be afraid go talk to people and ask them do a lot more do a lot more asking do a lot more listening and fix the things you can because it’s amazing how a small thing can go an awful long ways when you show up if you’re you know, a leader and you go out and sit down with your people and say hey, I really want to make this the best possible work experience everyday for you.

I want the team. I wanted to be fun to work here. Like what can we do? What’s not working and listen and same thing with HR go out and talk to people ask him what things and sometimes there’s going to be things you can’t fix right if they say well we need to be paid more. It’s like I can’t that’s something that I can only impact so much but then they’ll say maybe little things that might have to do with the way their work is.

The way the work their work is organized or maybe they’re scheduling and you have some impact over their schedule. I’ve had people that said they’re night owls and they you know, they’re up until 1:00 2:00 o’clock in the morning. They just don’t function early in the morning. So I’m like well, can you get here by 10?

I mean I don’t care when you know, if you need to come into the other work until seven. Whatever works for you. I don’t care just as long as you’re getting the work done that that one at that was a he small thing on my end. I didn’t really care. Made a huge difference for them, right? So it’s the little things like that that I think go listen and then fix the things you can because when they start believing that you care and that you will take action when you can that can change everything such a powerful message and thank you very much Jason for joining us today.

What is the best way to find you? I’m a website’s the easiest place to find it. That’s kind of where all my stuff is. My books called unlocking high-performance. If you Google that you should be able to find that or if you visit Amazon shouldn’t be too hard to find I try to be easy to find the my business listeners.

We’ve been here with Jason Lauritsen. Thank you so much for your time.

Hey, thanks for having me.