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The Magic of Making an Effort


Just over a year ago I gave a keynote speech at a conference in Russia. I worked diligently to master a few key phrases. But, between having no natural capacity for foreign languages and not hearing much Russian in my day-to-day life, the result was dreadful. I actually might have insulted their mothers as I greeted the audience; but they smiled and clapped enthusiastically.

Throughout the conference, I tried out my slow and very clunky greetings. It was uncomfortable for me and probably sounded like nails on a chalkboard to those with whom I spoke. Yet, even my worst attempts appeared to spark a human connection and enhance the possibility of real dialogue. I felt embraced rather than embarrassed and appreciated rather than ashamed — clearly not because of the quality of my Russian, but because of the quality of the effort I was investing.

And that’s when I came to a visceral understanding that effort counts for a lot more than many of us realize; that it’s a powerful un- (or under-) used resource in life, both in and out of the workplace.

  • How frequently do you hold back, wait until whatever you’re working on is in final, pristine form, or aspire to (and lament falling short of) perfection?
  • How frequently might just putting yourself out there, sharing early drafts, and acknowledging progress (rather than perfection) actually make a significant difference – to you and to others?

Given the complexity of today’s workplace, the frequently competing demands, and eternally moving targets, leaders might want to dedicate some attention toward effort. In fact, “mining the magic of effort” just might be the next big leadership competency craze!

Think about the possibilities. Suppose:

  • A recent engagement or climate survey surfaces that employees desire more flexibility in their work. Clearly, a manager can’t overturn corporate policy and unilaterally allow his team to operate remotely. But, an honest conversation about the limitations and some genuine problem-solving around small steps in the desired direction could result in a plan whereby a rotation allows each employee to work from home one day each month. It’s not a 100% solution to address the survey feedback, but it demonstrates effort.
  • An employee wants a promotion that is simply not possible despite his/her capacity and preparation. Even the most resourceful manager might struggle to materialize a job. But she could work with the employee to craft some satisfying and challenging stretch assignments that approximate and/or further prepare the person for a next steps. She can also demonstrate a selfless commitment to the employee by supporting him in looking at opportunities outside of the organization. It’s not 100% what the employee wants, but it demonstrates effort.
  • A team needs a process to change within another part of the company to facilitate their work and allow them to be more effective. Many managers might make an attempt to work with colleagues or the boss to effect the necessary changes but sweep their lack of results under the carpet. Maybe sharing the less-than-stellar outcome honestly, authentically, and without blame would serve everyone in the situation. It’s not 100% of what the team wants (in fact, it’s actually 0%), but it demonstrates effort.
  • A manager attends leadership training and decides to try out the new skills even before they’ve been refined and are ready for prime time. It’s not a 100% performance, but it demonstrates effort.

Many of us grew up in homes with mantras that went something like this: “There’s no such thing as trying. You either do it or you don’t.” While parental intentions were good, this all-or-nothing mentality has left many of us erring on the side of delivering a lot of nothing when an attempt might be deeply appreciated by employees and help build commitment, engagement and results.

So, I say “nyet” to perfection and our personal invalidation of the “attempt,” and suggest leaders embrace the magic of making an effort.

Image: (c) Can Stock Photo / ratch0013


  1. This is great, Julie – Having just returned from visits to several countries in Europe, your language analogy is on the money. The effort to communicate in the host’s language opens doors and strengthen’s bonds. Making an honest effort with your team can have a similar impact since it implies respect, trust, and a desire to collaborate openly. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for the confirmation, Ken. And I couldn’t agree more. With teams, colleagues, and even family members, effort really does seem to communicate volumes and contribute to positive feelings and outcomes. I appreciate your comment.

  2. Dear Julie,

    Thank you for a brilliant post – you’re so very right. Of course there are situations where you have to practise meticulously before you act – but those are mostly in categories like space technology, surgery and similar. Most of the things we can do are in the category you mention here, where doing the honest attempt and thereby honing your skills is so much better than holding back to achieve perfection.
    And happily we are moving towards a situation where it is widely accepted that the less than perfect first attempt is okay – that failure is not a permanent state, and where failing fast is to prefer rather than spending a huge effort trying to achieve unachievable perfection. You post underlines this beautifully.
    A slightly off topic anecdote on languages – I am quite fond of languages, but must admit that my skills do not match my affection. But I have a trick which is actually quite good – I used it in French, but I think it is globally applicable. I learned one sentence really well: “I am sorry that I do not speak very well French – do you mind that I speak English instead?” – that usually make people acknowledge my attempt, compliment me that my French isn’t that bad, and accept that I speak English – and I can still throw in the occasional “oui” or “bien sur” and try to become better, when I do not need to be totally accurate.

    All the best,

    • Henrik,
      Thanks for taking the time to comment here. And thanks for highlighting those times when practice/perfection are required… a good distinction for sure! I love your thoughts on failure… not fatal or permanent, but a terrific teacher if we’re willing to sit with it and extract the lessons. And I am going to steal your language tip… what a lovely, respectful approach! It’s fun to interact with you here without the 280 character limitations of Twitter! I look forward to more. Thank you again and happy weekend.

      • Don’t worry – I’ll be back; it is really liberating to go beyond 280 characters every once in a while.
        Actually, I used to have the discussion about when it’s OK to fail quite a lot with a colleague – he was of the opinion that “if we fail, we will release something that does not work, and that could be disastrous” – I fought quite hard to eventually make him accept that in order to get into a situation where we had the best possible products released, we had to experiment – and fail – quite a lot on the way to stability and success.
        I am happy that you like the “I am sorry that I do not speak very well French”-trick – I hope it will work well for you.
        All the best, and a happy weekend to you, too.

        • I get where your colleague was coming from. The thought of blowing it publicly and disappointing customers and employees in the process is scary. I guess that’s where risk management comes in. Figuring out what level of ‘failure’ can be tolerated and knowing when to pull back. It’s a delicate dance for sure. In any event, merci for your comments, Henrik!

  3. Love this! There is so much to the art of showing up and doing the best that you can. Effort matters.

    • So true, Karin. Showing up is half the battle. Add a little presence and effort, and we can make great things happen!


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