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What is discretionary effort and how does it contribute towards business success?

Welcome to the first of two blogs, which explore the concept of discretionary effort and what makes people decide to go the extra mile.

In this first blog, we’ll explore what discretionary effort is, why it’s important to organisational performance and how to spot if it’s missing from your organisation or team.

“We’ve really enhanced our approach to personal development recently, with a focus on learning, teambuilding and a culture of continuous improvement. But our people are still disengaged, what’s the problem?”

“Surely a people-focused organisation like us should reap the rewards of enthusiastic and engaged staff? We have a great culture and people seem to like working here.”

“We’ve got really clear KPIs and everyone knows their targets but most of them aren’t achieving what they need to.”

We come across these three scenarios more often than you might expect. Often, the businesses concerned aren’t doing anything wrong, they just aren’t going deep enough with their approach.

It’s well documented that employees who are engaged and happy are therefore productive.

They feel they belong, they’re a part of the organisation, so they have a shared purpose to see it succeed. On the flip side, if employees lack a sense of purpose, they can drift and easily lose enthusiasm for their work, often going through the motions to tick boxes adding little or no extra value.

What is discretionary effort?

There’s a name for the gap between these two groups, or outcomes, which is ‘discretionary effort’. Its simple definition is “a level of effort an employee is capable of giving, but one that exceeds the bare minimum that’s required of them” (source).

Let’s address how this plays out in each of the scenarios quoted at the start of this blog:

In the first scenario, we’d want to know how the business had invested in personal development. Simply making online learning or workshops available isn’t enough to build true engagement and encourage discretionary effort. It becomes a box-ticking exercise. If you invest in your people, it should be to help them become the best version of themselves . In doing so, you align the outcomes you need for the business with their own personal goals and aspirations, creating a common sense of purpose. Achieving this requires a more in-depth development programme which looks at their current beliefs, shows them the mindset of a high achiever, and asks them to think about how it would feel to bridge the gap.

The second scenario could be similar: making a sustained change (which sticks beyond the actual learning experience itself) involves working with people on what they believe is possible, not just demonstrating the way you’d like them to work. When we work with our clients, our objective is to leave them with a workforce full of high performers, not with a workforce of competent people. There’s a difference in the belief system held by these two groups and we always aim for the very best because the outcome will then encourage discretionary effort.

Finally, the third scenario could well be a business that has become a victim of its own success. Discretionary effort is all about people choosing to go above and beyond because they feel rewarded just by doing so. Sometimes, when a business is really hot on targets or KPIs and provides associated rewards, (as can be common in a sales team) it has the adverse effect of people doing just enough to achieve what they need to. Without an accompanying incentive which goes beyond monetary reward (such as a clear sense of belonging or purpose) to motivate them, they will always do ‘just enough’, stopping short of discretionary effort.

How can we encourage discretionary effort?

For people to use discretionary effort, they have to want to do so. It’s not something that can be prescribed (the clue to why is in its very name) however, when we work with clients, we start by looking at individual beliefs and, by sharing the mindset of a high achiever, we help people to understand how they can become the best version of themselves.

Read on for some examples of how you can build a mindset that chooses to go the extra mile.

And if any of our opening scenarios resonated with you, why not give us a call and find out more about our programmes? You can reach us via the contact page or call +44 (0) 1488 658686.


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