image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveIf you’ve ever worked incredibly hard only to have something run off the rails or just not generate the results you were after, you understand what an imbalance in the Efforts-to-Results ratio feels like.

I recall rankling at a college writing instructor who gave me a B on what in my mind was clearly an A-paper. I visited her during office hours and naively made my pitch for a better grade based on the amount of effort I had put into researching and redrafting the paper. She commended me for my effort and then proceeded to leave an indelible print on my professional and personal soul with these words: “I understand, but effort doesn’t count, results do, and this isn’t an A paper. However, the good news is that your hard work kept it from being a C paper.”

Ouch. That hurt, but she was right. My values were out of whack when it came to the Efforts to Results ratio. I equated hard work with success and naively expected the recognition of that effort to be rewarded. In a sense, it was with the B versus the C, but that’s not what I expected. Great lesson!

In the workplace, I often see situations at the individual, managerial and systemic levels that signal an imbalance in the efforts to results ratio.


  • There are the average performers who expect above average compensation. Much like my younger self, their value-set on the efforts to results ratio is out of whack. Many never internalize the lesson and move through their career in a perpetual state of outrage over the compensation injustice they endure. Robust, behavioral feedback and dialog and crystal clear goal/objective setting are essential for dealing with these characters. Beware however, most never move beyond their outrage and will actively work their managers in an attempt to extort additional compensation. You cannot build high performance with perpetually dissatisfied employees, so, after due diligence and appropriate effort, if the behaviors remain the same, vote these employees off your team or out of your organization. And yes, I just suggested getting rid of average, disgruntled performers.
  • There are the timekeepers who burn the proverbial midnight and weekend oil, mostly marking time but not really making visible or measurable forward progress. They believe they are working harder than everyone around them and are bitter when time invested doesn’t translate into extraordinary compensation. Training and coaching on time and priority management plus careful observation and feedback (especially positive) may help these individuals move beyond their time invested = personal outcomes equation imbalance.
  • And of course, we have the micromanaging managers who examine the minutiae of everyone’s work or, the managers who expect everyone around them to be on call 24/7.  They definitely have a warped sense of the efforts to results ratio. They’re frantically and frenetically trying to improve their own lot by making your lot miserable and by overloading you on the efforts side of the equation. If you’re in charge of someone who operates like this, get them off your ship. If you work for this manager, transfer departments or go somewhere else. Life is too short and these people are typically beyond repair.

While the situations above are all manageable, it’s the systemic imbalance in the efforts to results ratio that is the most troublesome and the most difficult to fix. I see this in organizations that manifest the following two characteristics:

1. Procedures and policies beget more procedures and policies in an ever-expanding from of bureaucracy that serves the bureaucrats but smothers those striving to serve customers and push initiatives in the right direction. The daily drill becomes compliance with the policies and procedures and employees are effectively taught that this takes priority over innovation, problem-solving or customer service.

2. Poorly designed, tyrannical matrix report-to structures. I witnessed a scenario where the helpless middle manager reported to the local G.M, the regional engineering manager, the corporate safety officer and the labor relations director. There was no coordination between those he reported to and as you might imagine, each “boss” had a nearly full-time workload for the manager. It was a brutal experience for this manager that generated sub-par results. The approach was designed to fail.

It’s a gross failure of top leadership when the system determines that massive efforts will equate at best to middling results. The late, great quality and management guru, W. Edwards Deming railed at the poorly designed systems emanating from top management where the workers were blamed for poor results. His famous Red Bead experiment is a simple but powerful illustration of this systemic breakdown. The best cure in this situation is a profound crisis brought on by poor results and encroaching competition combined with defecting customers, all leading to a transfusion of leadership at the top.

Getting the Ratio Right as a Leader:

Effective leaders focus on building an environment for success to flourish. They don’t judge people by effort or inputs, they measure and evaluate output per unit of input. It doesn’t matter how hard you worked on that project if it failed to meet customer needs. While you might learn something from the failure, eventually, you are accountable for positive results.

My guidance: always be on the lookout for for ways to simplify complexity, eradicate systemic barriers and obstacles and extract yourself from the wrong side of this efforts/results equation. Listen to and observe your team members. If big efforts are yielding small results, something is wrong. And don’t forget to look in the mirror. You may have your own equation out of alignment here, and as a result, you may be adversely impacting the broader efforts to results ratio.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I’m proud of my ability to work hard and I know many others who feel the same way about their tenacity and stick-to-itiveness. Tenacious people drive great outcomes, often through experimentation, failure and learning. I admire anyone willing to put in the hard work, however, in the final analysis, you will be evaluated based on your results. Get the balance in the efforts to results ratio right and your life and the lives of your team members will improve dramatically.

See more posts in the Leadership Caffeine™ series.

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.