Effort vs. Outcomes

Few things are more frustrating than working hard and not seeing the expected outcome. Whether organizing a birthday party or restructuring an organization, we expect the outcomes to be outstanding when the work is intense.

Of course, it doesn’t always work out like that.

If you lead people, monitoring the balance between effort and outcomes can help you know when and how to support them and when things are more serious.

The debate

There is an ongoing debate in the workplace about whether team leaders should view work quality through the lens of effort or outcome.

The argument acknowledges that front-line contributors are part of the execution of objectives defined by others, usually above them in the hierarchy, so accountability for their expected behaviors is all there should be.

The opposing view is if the behaviors were as defined and at the expected quality, the outcomes would also be as expected.

This writing side-steps that argument because individual contributors, regardless of their responsibility to the outcome, expect their best effort to produce the best results. When they don’t, an emotional response impacts organizational effectiveness irrespective of the reason.

Effort and Outcome Matrix

Let’s address the four possibilities in the Effort vs. Outcome matrix and how we might address those quickly and with the most significant impact.

High effort and low outcome | Frustrated

You may have some responsibility for the poor outcome in this situation. It is common for individual contributors to execute precisely what leaders ask of them and see poor outcomes. Leaders will often ‘hold them accountable for the outcomes rather than looking into the effort. If the effort aligns with what you and your team member agreed upon and the outcomes are not good - you likely need a new plan.

Blaming them for poor execution without this inspection can hurt trust and credibility. Of course, if they have not executed as agreed, coaching would be appropriate to understand why there is variance and help them get aligned.


Just as you are frustrated when outcomes are not as expected, your team is also. Sometimes, a little frustration can fuel growth, problem-solving, and innovation. But if the team is grinding away at the same work day after day and results are below expectations, you need to get involved.

  • Pull the team together and talk openly about their feelings and why.

  • Push the conversation into a solution-driven dialog once you identify the frustrations. Keep things focused on what is controllable.

  • Skills such as cross-functional collaboration and prioritization often require work to get through the valley.

  • Sometimes they have already identified a better path to the desired outcomes. Be flexible and open to new ideas.

Low effort and high outcomes | Bored

When the work isn’t challenging, we often see gossip, attendance issues, and other distractions from work creep in.

These are the times to pick up those projects you have meant to get to. Assigning projects, delegating new and challenging work, and other developmental assignments can get the team appropriately challenged.

A few things to remember:

  • As a leader, you must balance keeping people challenged but not overwhelmed. Everyone has a different capacity.

  • When building projects, it is essential to show the benefit to the person taking on the challenge. They should be excited to take on the work, understanding that it is to stretch them. Otherwise, delegated work that increases workload with no benefit to the team member may need to draw additional compensation.

  • Development impact should be specific. Saying someone should do an extra ten hours of work a week for ‘visibility’ is not acceptable. There should be clear, competency-based objectives to accomplish during this project.

  • Additional work should warrant additional compensation if your ‘project’ has no end date.

High effort and high outcomes | Fulfilled

This is when we are at our best. The more effort we give, the better the outcomes we see. We feel supported, recognized, and empowered.

It also means the defined objectives appropriately connect to outcomes. Although this is our desired state, leaders should avoid some potential pitfalls.

  • When things are going well, we sometimes forget that we must challenge our top performers to grow. Mind their capacity, but always keep development in the conversation.

  • When your team is at its best, give them credit. Use their names when speaking about their outstanding results in meetings they don’t have access to.

  • When you say, ‘it’s the team doing the great work, you must know what they are doing that is impactful. Spending time daily or weekly to understand their actions is so impactful. It is essential that they can articulate their outstanding work and that you are representing them accurately.

  • When possible, connect them to peers who are not seeing excellent outcomes and have them share what is working.

Low effort and low outcomes | Disengaged

Team members are likely burned out when this is happening. This burnout could be because they are in the wrong job, not getting the support they need, aren’t asking for help, or something is happening outside of work that needs to manage.

Of course, this could be happening because you are not very good at your job or perhaps not giving them what they specifically need for various reasons.

  • You don’t like them as a person.

  • You won't believe your effort with them will ever result in a positive outcome.

  • You don’t think they have the intellectual capacity to do the work, regardless of how you support them.There could be many other reasons you are not giving them what they need, some valid and measurable, some personal and subjective.

There are a few things you can do to ensure you are both giving your best effort:

  • Ask what is happening openly and without consequence. Sometimes it helps to change the venue - perhaps a coffee shop or over lunch.

  • Get appropriate partners involved, including HR, counseling, legal counsel, or social services. It is not your responsibility to solve every problem, but we can’t ask people to bring their ‘whole selves to work and draw a line with their personal life. Help them find the resources to get their personal life sorted out.

  • If the issue is you, they may not be comfortable talking about it. Invite feedback by offering up some of the things you know you aren’t very good at and ask if those are concerns. This vulnerability will go a long way in having a transparent conversation.

  • Sometimes the issue is not you, but the team member is upset about a company directive neither of you has control over. Beware of over-aligning with the team member and making the company sound terrible. Do your best to explain the company’s reasoning or commit to gaining some understanding if you are unsure. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, however.

  • If the team member doesn’t want to disclose the root cause of the poor effort, let them know that a continued relationship with the company is impossible without change. Sometimes people need a day or two to process the conversation and organize their thoughts. Commit to following up and if there is still no resolution, follow the company guidelines for performance management.

Allowing team members to contribute low effort while working with those getting the same pay with much higher effort will erode trust within your team. It would help if you addressed these moments quickly and decisively while ensuring you are compassionate. They are not a bad human; they are just doing poor work. Always treat them with respect.


Although business relies on the connection between effort and outcome, complexity impacts that relationship.

These relationships impact motivation and satisfaction characterized by the following:

  • High effort and low outcome | Frustrated

  • Low effort and high outcomes | Bored

  • High effort and high outcomes | Fulfilled

  • Low effort and low outcomes | Disengaged

Each team member may have a different level of effort and outcome, and these differences will require the leader to support them differently. A one-size-fits-all approach will likely not find sustained results, increase burnout, and damage trust.

Take the time to understand each team member's effort and outcome connection, and you will see improved morale, trust, and outcomes.