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Discretionary Effort

  • 4 min read

Wellbeing, company culture and discretionary effort

Aside from a genuine desire to take care of your employees, there is another big reason for employers to focus on wellbeing – productivity and results.

We know that when people feel happy, eangaged and supported at work they are more productive, take less time off sick, and staff turnover is reduced. When employees willingly contribute additional effort beyond their basic job requirements, it can be a powerful catalyst for productivity, innovation, and overall success. This is what is meant by the term ‘discretionary effort.’

What is discretionary effort?

Discretionary effort is essentially a really neat term to capture the additional effort an employee gives to their work, going above and beyond what is expected or required for them to fulfil their role satisfactorily. Increasingly the ‘above and beyond’ effort of employees is understood as a key driver for success.

As well as activities such as arriving early or checking on colleagues, discretionary effort is also reflected in certain working behaviours and attitudes, such as being keen to take on learning and sharpen skills, volunteering for extra responsibility or to help with additional tasks, offering ideas and suggestions to improve practice, and mentoring colleagues.

It is probably easiest to think about discretionary effort in the context of hospitality. Author and inspirational speaker on business leadership Simon Sinek, gives a real-life example of discretionary effort in action in his story about Noah, a barista who served him coffee at the Four Seasons Hotel in Las Vegas. It was such a positive experience, thanks to Noah’s demeanour, that Simon asked him if he liked his job – to be met with a resounding ‘Yes, I love my job’.

When asked why, he explained that whenever a manager walked by his kiosk – not only his manager, but any manager in the hotel – they would check in to see how he was doing and if there was anything he needed to do his job better.

Revealingly, at his other place of work - Caesar’s Palace – things were quite different. Noah told Simon that managers there made sure things were done correctly by trying to catch out staff making a mistake. So, while at The Four Seasons Noah ‘could be himself’, in his other job he ‘kept his head down and just got through the day.’ As Simon points out, here was an example of the right leadership ‘creating’ the right people – ‘so you get Noah at the Four Seasons and not Noah at Caesar’s Palace.’

Creating the right environment

Harnessing discretionary effort is not only about optimising productivity but also about fostering a workplace environment where employees feel motivated, engaged, and valued.

A key lever is a company's culture, that is the collective personality of an

organisation, from the shared values and ethos to the job expectations and communication style. It shapes how people behave, interact, and make decisions.

However, it isn’t enough just to pay lip service to company culture – a sign in the lobby and some fancy words on an ‘about us’ page of the website aren’t going to cut it! It is only when these values are embedded, integrated into policies and procedures, embodied by leaders, and embraced by teams, that they have meaning. When workers know what their company stands for and when that aligns with their own values and purpose, it can help unlock that all-important discretionary effort.

The right kind of leadership

There is a lot that leaders do to shape the workplace – but essentially their role is taking care of their people. As Simon Sinek puts it, the “real job of a leader is not being in charge but taking care of those in our charge.”

Some key pillars to put in place include:

Prioritising mental and physical health: Pay attention to ergonomics because comfortable well-designed workspaces support health and reduce stress. By considering the diverse needs of employees – different body types, personalities, preferences, and neurodiversity too - a company also reinforces a culture of inclusivity.

Cultivating enthusiasm: Employees who love their jobs will give more, so getting them engaged and enthusiastic is a great place to start. Rewards and recognition needn’t be monetary. Public praise and kudos are powerful too.

Making purpose manifest: People who have a sense of how and why their work is meaningful, within the context of the company and beyond, tend to stay engaged and motivated.  When you feel your work matters, you’re more likely to go that extra mile.

Empowering and validating: Ask for feedback and provide easy channels for staff to raise concerns or suggest improvements. When people see actions arise from their suggestions, they’ll step up again in the future. However, if nothing ever happens, they won’t bother.

Growth and development:support staff from the outset. Make sure new people are fully aware of company culture, values and mission, as well as the underpinning mechanics of their roles. Buddy systems help new employees understand the culture and settle in quickly. By helping them understand which attitudes and behaviours are valued in a workplace, they can hit the ground running.

Creating career pathways: Providing a pathway for employees to advance is key. If no amount of extra effort takes you to the next level, why would you give more than you need to? Promotions and progress give employees a reason to try to shine. Coaching and mentoring can accelerate this process.

Leadership: good leaders create an environment in which people and the organisation can thrive. Remember to start teaching leadership (not management) skills to your future managers before they need leadership skills. Don’t wait until they are already in the role.

In short, by supporting and caring for employees, equipping them with what they need to perform well, and creating a working environment where they feel valued, engaged, motivated and able to embrace a shared mission and culture, you open the door for them to grow.

Get it wrong and employees will withdraw the gift of their discretionary effort.

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