What does ‘Walking the extra mile’ really mean?

While the term ‘walking the extra mile’ is often used in the context of customer service, it also applies to the employment relationship.

Employees who ‘walk the extra mile’ are the ones whom employers should reward and whose services they should make it a priority to retain. But exactly what does ‘walking the extra mile’ mean in the employment context?

Let’s start with a possible definition:
“Walking the extra mile means providing services which go beyond the call of duty and beyond the key performance areas or expectations for your job.”

Examples of walking the extra mile include:

  • Displaying a cheerful and positive attitude, even when you are feeling down
  • Displaying a readiness to put in extra work for which you do not expect to be paid
  • Volunteering for overtime at times when others complain about excess overtime
  • Voluntarily assisting colleagues in a crisis, even if the work has little to do with your job function
  • Noticing potential problems and opportunities and timeously bringing these to the attention of management
  • Taking full responsibility and accountability for your work, especially when things go wrong
  • Offering suggestions and showing an interest in the business of your employer as a whole, not just your in own area of work
  • Supporting unpopular management decisions, even though you might not necessarily agree with them
  • Being honest and trustworthy in everything you do (i.e. ethical conduct and no private agendas)
  • Delivering on your promises (i.e. doing what you say you are going to do and not making promises you can’t keep)

An important point which managers should take note of is that employees who walk the extra mile should not be taken for granted.

Stephen Covey in 7 Habits for Highly Effective People notes that in order to be effective you need to pay attention to the P/PC balance. For those of you who have not read the book, P refers to Production, and PC to Production Capacity.

Covey makes an analogy using Aesop’s fable of the man who killed the goose who laid golden eggs. In the analogy the golden eggs are the Production and the goose, the Production Capacity.

While it is important to focus on results/outputs or production (the eggs), it is also necessary to ensure that it is sustainable. This will only be possible if you also look after the production capacity (the goose).

Employees who walk the extra mile are the lifeblood of any business (the equivalent of the goose). Their contribution must be acknowledged and rewarded and they should never be taken for granted!

An invitation to by pass line managers?
An issue which can result in confusion and create problems in businesses is the so-called ‘open door’ policy. Virtually all authorities on leadership recommend ‘management by walk-about’ and an ‘open door’ policy. These are intended to give senior management a way of being accessible to employees and ‘keeping their open and ears to the ground’.

This is all very well but some senior managers may not understand this. Employees may also take it as a licence to by-pass their line managers.

Unfortunately, when conflict arises, if employees are allowed to bypass their line managers and go directly to senior management, more often than not, it ultimately results in lose-lose outcomes.

For example, employees may have misconceptions or complaints regarding matters of policy. The explanations given to them by their line manager may be taken as a sign that the manager has no authority and it is a waste of time speaking to him or her. Then, when a real grievance arises, on the basis of their past experiences, employees may insist on talking to a director/senior manager directly. He or she therefore has no opportunity to address the grievance.

The grievance may well be supported by some form of work stoppage and when they are asked to explain what their grievances are, employees refuse to discuss them with anyone but the director / senior manager.

This can result stalemates where the nature of the grievance changes from the original grievance(s) to a dispute concerning employees’ failure to follow procedures and the consequences thereof (disciplinary action or dismissals).

For example, employees may refuse to go back to work until they speak to the director and the director on the other hand, refuses to meet with them (for fear of undermining line management). This has led to dismissals in the past, litigation and the loss of thousands of man hours.

Alternatively, top management may capitulate and agree to meet with employees and, in the process, undermine their line management. The long-term consequences of this can be even more serious and can include the collapse of discipline within the business.

Employees who are able to bypass procedures are likely to become increasingly militant. They soon realise that the quickest way to get their own way is to down tools and demand to speak to the director directly.

In the process, they become increasingly difficult to manage. Line managers are seen as ‘dogs without teeth’. Having successfully ignored procedures and their managers, they may ‘push the envelope’ believing that other rules and standards can also be ignored.

On the other hand, line managers may become increasingly reluctant to enforce rules and standards if they believe that employees can to go over their heads to have their decisions overruled. When a workforce becomes militant, employees have been known to demand the dismissal of managers and supervisors who try to enforce rules and standards.

Costly precedents are sometimes set due to insufficient thought being given to the implications of employee demands by the director who has to ‘think on his feet’.

A grievance procedure acts as a natural filter so that grievances are considered from the points of view of both the employee and the employer. It also allows for pressure to be taken out of decision making so that decisions are made for the right reasons.

Everyone makes mistakes. When mistakes are made by line management, they can be rectified by top management. Unfortunately, when top management makes mistakes, these are not so easy to rectify and the consequences are much greater.

Precedents are set which can have a knock-on effect for the business. For example, a change in shifts may be agreed in order to get employees to return to work without proper consideration being given to how it will affect customers, other employees or overtime costs.

On the other hand, an ill-considered refusal to concede to an issue by a senior manager becomes very difficult to deal with internally without the senior manager losing face. Usually these decisions end up in disputes and litigation which is costly.

If it is a dispute of right which goes to court or arbitration, and the ruling goes in favour of employees, not only will the employer have incurred costs but face saving becomes a big issue. For these reasons, it is not adviseable for top management to get involved in conflict directly.

The types of situations outlined above are common in labour relations. They result in the loss of countless man hours, millions of rand and, ultimately, jobs when unprofitable businesses have to close.

Everyone loses, except the opposition!

It is important therefore for all parties, in their own best interests, to understand that an open-door policy is intended to give individuals access to senior management. The management by ‘walk-about’ approach is intended to give senior management an opportunity to get to know people in the business with whom they do not ordinarily come into contact with. It also enables them to see conditions and problems first hand and it allows them to ‘keep their ears to the ground’.

Neither management by ‘walk-about’ nor an open-door policy are intended as an invitation for employees to bypass their line managers or to ignore grievance, negotiating and dispute handling procedures.