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Discretionary Effort Distinctions

The Key to 21st Century Leadership: Discretionary Effort

Discretionary effort is the key to 21st century productivity and economic sustainability. Getting employees to give discretionary effort on a regular basis involves examining company people policies and evaluating the touch points between managers and employees.

Cultivating discretionary effort is both an individual and a collective process to improve the level of energy and innovation that flows within an organization. As a collective process it is neither a quick fix nor an expensive, resource-depleting process, but when done in a measured and incremental way, the giving of discretionary effort by employees is a breakthrough, bottom line improvement.

Traditional literature defines discretionary effort as the difference between the level of effort a worker is capable of bringing to an activity or task and the minimum effort required to do the work and get a pay check. This minimum level of effort can be made by employees who are competent at their jobs but who are relatively disengaged in the overall goals of the company.

For example, experienced and knowledgeable workers may only be giving the minimum level of effort as they do routine work required by their job description: processing invoices, making sales calls, writing proposals, etc. How would the results of their work be different if they understood the goals of the company and were giving discretionary effort instead of the minimum required to keep their job?

Giving discretionary effort is a voluntary act. When an employee gives the company discretionary effort, it is an intentional, free-will choice. Before discretionary effort contributions are observable, they exist as potential in the mind of every employee as ideas to improve what is happening. These ideas represent great power waiting to be tapped; power that increase resources and reduce costs as workers add value to the tasks they perform. With a limited awareness, leadership teams often think doing more with less is about computers, technology, and waste reduction strategies.

Doing more with less includes this hidden gem of teaching managers how to earn the gift of discretionary effort from employees as opposed to demanding or forcing extra effort and long hours.

Discretionary Effort – Is it the same as Going the Second Mile?

In conversation with people and I tell them I have written a book on discretionary effort entitled How to Earn the Gift of Discretionary Effort, the typical response, is “Oh, ya, we do that in our company. We have programs that get people to go the extra mile.”

Going the extra mile is to do more than the usual and is often interpreted as staying late, working through lunch, or working on weekends to finish an assignment.

I overheard two managers discussing the need to get an employee to stay late to finish a report one of them needed. The one said to the other, “It is easy to get her to give discretionary effort and stay late on Wednesday to finish that report. Just give her Friday afternoon off.”

This is not discretionary effort. It is pleasing a manager in a quid pro quid situation.

The typical definition of going the extra mile can be part of discretionary effort, but discretionary effort is so much more and earning the gift of discretionary effort from employees is an art.

On a daily basis employees must give a minimum of effort to keep their jobs and not be fired. Discretionary effort is the difference between what they must do to meet their job requirements and get a pay check and what they are capable of contributing.

Do you as a manager know what your employees are capable of contributing? Do you create an environment that gives them responsibility, makes them accountable, permits them to take risks and be rewarded? If these qualities are part of your culture, you will be getting discretionary effort from conscientious employees.

Several years ago when doing work at Fort Benning I had lunch with the head of the Army Research Institute. He said to me, “Karla, you should see what happens to these young people when I describe a project and ask them if they would like to be in charge. They see possibilities and get excited. Then I tell them that if it is a success, they will get all the glory. If it fails, I’ll take the rap.”

He liberated the individuals from the restraints of just doing enough to get a paycheck and gave them the opportunity develop new technologies and refine processes. He empowered them and consequently discovered their capabilities and their expanded capacity to produce.

As a manager, you will have employees that go the extra mile, but as you create an environment that enables employees to stretch and discover their own capabilities, you will observe discretionary effort in:

  • Collaboration, not mere compliance with rules
  • Creative solutions to nagging problems
  • Intellectual mindshare to innovate market products

When you understand that discretionary effort is not a program and is more than going the extra mile, you will begin to create an environment where discretionary effort can flourish. You will observe it frequently as you interact with others in your organization.

EARNING the Gift of Discretionary Effort

When people read the title of the book, How to Earn the Gift of Discretionary Effort, they give me an inquisitive look. They want to knowwhy discretionary effort is a gift and why it has to be earned.

Employees bring many gifts to your organization. Some of these gifts are listed on their resumes such as their education, certifications, career knowledge and skills they have developed. Other gifts such as ability to work with others on the team can be discerned by recommendations from people who have worked with them previously.

Many gifts are hidden inside the individual. These gifts include tenacity, loyalty, responsibility, humility, intuition, honesty, etc. I call these gifts of character and they don’t show up on a resume.

Employees unwrap these character gifts when the environment is right. For instance, in a contentious meeting, one employee may have a gift of humor and will unwrap that gift with a humorous statement, bringing tensions down.

If two employees are in a heated disagreement, another employee may unwrap her gift of mediation and get attendees to see both viewpoints.

Yet another employee may unwrap his gift of vision and decisiveness and push attendees to a decision.

Think of the talents of employees wrapped in beautiful boxes sitting around them on the floor and on their desks. With this analogy, your entire office building would be filled with impressively wrapped packages waiting to be unwrapped as if it were a birthday party where the “gifts” are regularly unwrapped.

In the spirit of transparency, ask and answer this question: Are employees in our company regularly giving the gift of discretionary effort? If the answer is “Yes” keep doing what you are doing and work to build the capacity of employees to give more. If the answer is “No” evaluate what you can do to create a culture where discretionary is freely given.

In a culture of discretionary effort, managers and leaders are the first to unwrap their gifts of discretionary effort model the qualities of giving more than is expected just to get a paycheck. They ensure their culture has these qualities:

  • Individuals are given respect and extended human dignity
  • Employees are accepted as they are when hired and helped to grow professionally
  • Workers are rationally aligned with company goals.
  • Managers give vision to employees, giving them the WHY and then offering leeway to use their creativity and skills to determine the HOW of completing a task.

As managers set the example and the culture incorporates these qualities, workers will be stimulated to give discretionary effort on a regular basis. Additional ideas for earning the gifts of discretionary effort can be found in the new 21st century leadership book, How to Earn the Gift of Discretionary Effort. Purchase it now on Amazon.

For a complimentary consultation on bringing a discretionary effort program to your company, call 770-923-0883.