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Why increasing discretionary effort in the workplace is the key of success

Why increasing discretionary effort in the workplace is the key of success

by Antonia Di Lorenzo

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“If you don’t trust someone to spend the right amount of time at work doing the job, or to turn up dressed correctly for a meeting, then are you likely to be empowering them to act on behalf of a customer?” The answer to the rhetoric question by David Radford, market management director at insurers Allianz Retail, seems to be: “No, I do not.”

More recently a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) report on leadership noted that “the key to performance is through engaging employees in ways that produce discretionary effort and creating an environment which encourages greater employee empowerment and voice to facilitate the exchange of ideas and know-how.”

Discretionary effort is the level of effort people could give if they wanted to, above and beyond the call of duty. David Jukes, president EMEA at Univar, a leading global chemical distributor, says in regards that “the organisations with discretionary effort tend to be the ones that care more, that make things happen, make people feel better about what they do. It makes colleagues feel wanted and appreciated, and customers feel loved and special.”

It is evident how discretionary effort is associated with engagement, and in some cases, it seems to be the natural result of the latter. Marc Woods, founding director of SladenWoods management consultants and a gold medal winning Paralympian, highlights how in today’s organisations, perhaps more than ever before, people matter. People’s actions are the main contribution to the success of an organisation. It seems there is a gap between what people are potentially prepared to do, and what they actually do, depending on the environment they’re working in, the organisation’s culture, their relationship with their manager or co-workers. These factors can stimulate people to stop from doing that little bit extra or going beyond the call of duty.

Woods wrote a book based on the results of his research: “Why Some of Your Team Go the Extra Mile and Others Don’t Show”. He identifies six drivers that organisations can target if they want to create an environment that fosters discretionary effort:

  • autonomy and empowerment;
  • consideration of the individual;
  • self-sacrificial leadership;
  • fairness and equity;
  • identifying with your team;
  • trust.

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In the context of discretionary effort, trust operates on several levels. One factor that impacts on trust, and therefore discretionary effort, says Alf Crossman, a senior lecturer in industrial relations and human resource management at Surrey Business School, University of Surrey, is the psychological contract between employer and employee, in other words, how employees believe they are entitled to be treated and the kinds of promises that people infer from their employee relationship. If on the one hand, people are prepared to give, then on the other, they expect to get something back in return.

According to Radford, even though the discretionary effort may be voluntary, it is important that organisations reward this behaviour to give the individual more consideration; on the other hand, they cannot take actions against who decides to not put in a bit more. It’s a matter of choice.

According to a study commissioned by Aubrey Daniels International (ADI), the only way organisations can earn discretionary effort is through the effective use of positive reinforcement,  that is any consequence that increases the probability of this behaviour. If people experience positive and immediate consequences, there will be more probabilities that people enjoying what they are doing will choose to go beyond the minimum required. After all, that’s exactly what happens in the everyday life, bringing the same attitude into an organisation, collaborating in building positive reinforcement.

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Reese Haydon, Marketing Specialist at DecisionWise, points out how discretionary effort varies by tasks – some of them can be more engaging than other ones and stimulate us to put in a bit more (extrinsic engagement) – or by person – according to this school of thought, the nature of task does not matter (intrinsic engagement). It is believed that both the theories are true. Engagement is a choice made by two parties: employer and employee. If the employee chooses to go beyond the minimum required, the employer needs to create an environment where the first one can be more engaged. Discretionary effort and employee engagement seem to be a by-product of a two-part equation.

Woods recognises that there is massive potential value to the employee, being able to contribute to the organisation more than managers imagine and expect: “No matter what your role or position, you can help your organisation focus on and improve the key drivers that can unlock that potential. Why wouldn’t you want to create an environment in which discretionary effort is able to flourish? That’s the kind of organisation we all want to be part of.”

When people enjoy, they are motivated to find solutions, are creative, guarantee a high level of commitment, a long-term and consistent relationship with the organisation.