Getting an Employee to Go the Extra Mile

Managers often say, “I want this employee to fully meet the formal expectations and even exceed them. And then – on his own initiative – to see what else he can do to help, and then – on his own initiative – do it!” To which I always say, “So why not just explain to them, frequently and enthusiastically, that ‘going the extra mile’ is the expectation?”

I was having this conversation with a restaurant manager (I’ll call him “Res.”) Res kept insisting, “That’s just setting the bar higher. So now the real expectation is the old expectation plus going the extra mile.” My response: “That’s exactly right. Let’s face it. When you complain that your direct reports are not going above and beyond expectations, you are obviously trying to raise the bar. So raise it! Spell out that higher expectation as clearly as possible.”

How can you teach someone to care?

The reason this is not an entirely satisfying response is that when managers like Res complain that their employees don’t “go the extra mile,” they are really saying they want employees to think of it on their own initiative. Why is that so important? Res offered this example:

Take a busboy. He’s setting tables, pouring water, delivering plates, clearing plates all day long … One busboy walks by the salad bar and there’s a crouton out of place, he cleans it up on his way to the kitchen without ever breaking his stride. Another guy walks past the salad bar over and over and never notices it’s a total mess. Those are just two different kinds of people. How can you teach someone to care?

I’ve come to realize that this whole “extra mile” thing has deeper implications for some managers. Some managers are trying to get at some constellation of character issues – work ethic, motivation, commitment, energy or effort.

I say: Don’t go there. Why bother? You probably can’t teach someone to care, and it wouldn’t be appropriate in your management relationship anyway. But you can require that the busboys stop and check the salad bar once every 15 minutes or so.

Here’s what Res and I worked out: An “extra mile” list for busboys. What would be all the ways that a busboy, doing his job as best he can, could take those extra moments in between his other tasks and add some real value by doing something above and beyond? The list included mostly “area patrols” – such as the salad bar. But there were other items on the list. And Res made an “extra mile” list for waiters, kitchen staff and hosts. He rolled it out to the team, and they ran with it. Res worked with every team to develop an “extra mile” list. Then Res and his assistant managers started including “extra-mile-ism” in their regular coaching. They made it fun and attached prizes and rewards for “excessive extra-mile-ism.” Within just a few weeks, Res sent me an email saying, “everyone is caught up in ‘extra-mile-ism’ and trying to outdo each other. We are climbing over each other to do more. It’s a big win.

Instead of wishing for employees to meet a bunch of unspoken expectations, let people know exactly what it would look like for them to go the extra mile in their particular roles.

Start talking about going the extra mile in your regular one-on-one dialogues:

  1. Make an “extra mile” list for yourself. What would it look like for you to go the extra mile in your role? After you do your job very well, very fast, all day long. In those extra moments. What are some extra ways you can add value? This will give you a bit of perspective.
  2. Ask every one of your direct reports to make an “extra mile” list for himself.
  3. Review each employee’s “extra mile” list. Perhaps talking through it together you will both learn a few things. Sometimes managers are surprised to find that items on the employee’s “extra mile” list would have been on the manager’s list of basic performance expectations. Together, create a working “extra mile” list for that employee. Remember, this is always a work in progress.
  4. Encourage employees to keep score for themselves on how often they complete items on the “extra mile” list. Take note of those who do and those who don’t score a lot of “extra mile” points. For those who do, provide recognition, reinforcement, and rewards whenever you can. For those who don’t, ask once in a while, “Why not?”

By making the opportunity to go the extra mile concrete, you give a lot more people the chance to excel in ways they might not have ever come up with on their own. They might not ever have realized it was something they could do or should do, or that you actually expected them to do. Now you are telling them, “These are concrete opportunities to excel. Go get ‘em.”