What Produces Discretionary Effort?

Marcianne Kuethen
April 28, 2014

Aubrey C. Daniels, author of Bringing Out the Best in People, created this graph to demonstrate discretionary effort.

We’ve all seen it too commonly–the employee who clicks quickly from her Facebook account to a screensaver when you walk by, or watches the clock and is out the door at three seconds after five o’clock. At best, these non-engaged or even actively disengaged employees perform the bare minimum of what’s required, and at worst, drag down the morale of the company with their not-so-private pity parties. So when the opposite occurs, it’s something to take note of.

“Why did you stay so late at work?” I recently asked my friend Sandy*, glancing at my watch. She was overdue by at least an hour. “Well, my boss gave me a goal of setting five appointments,” she replied. “I got so excited, I just couldn’t quit until I had scheduled nine!”

That’s discretionary effort–when an employee’s level of performance rises above the have-to into the want-to zone. Discretionary effort is a symptom of a fully engaged employee, and it translates directly into the improvement of your bottom line.

As employers, we all long to see our employees put forth discretionary effort. Unfortunately, asserts Aubrey Daniels, an expert in behavioral psychology, “many organizations manage performance in such a way that motivates employees to do only enough to get by and avoid getting in trouble (negative reinforcement). Typically, these organizations manage by exception, providing consequences for worker’s performance only when it falls below the standard or minimum required. This approach gets immediate results, but just enough behavior to stop the threats and the potential for other negative consequences in the near future. It suppresses discretionary effort because there’s nothing in it for people to do more than the minimum required.”

So how can you as an employer encourage discretionary effort? There are many actions you can take, such as creating a culture of respect, providing ongoing training to further your employees’ careers, ensuring an atmosphere of safety and encouragement, and conducting regular performance reviews that facilitate feedback and connection between you and your employees. Any action that enhances employee engagement will, in turn, improve the level of discretionary effort your employees are willing to give.

Daniels, who created the graph pictured above, asserts that you can shape the behavior you want to see in your employees by providing positive reinforcement. His book tells you how to use a behavior-based performance management system to transform employees’ work into something they are willing, ready and even eager to do, which in turn ensures that everybody performs to his or her full potential. To help discretionary behavior grow and become consistent, Daniels recommends replacing negative consequences for critical business behaviors with regular positive consequences by using a ratio of 4:1–four positives to one negative or constructive comment. This result can be seen in the graph above, where R+ (positive reinforcement) is responsible for creating a higher level of employee performance. (For more information on his book, click here.)

An important aspect of positive reinforcement is recognizing employees’ individuality. As HR professional Bimal Rath puts it, “Appreciation is much more valuable than criticism. The best in people can be leveraged, allowing them to live their own dreams. The discretionary effort and energy a person will put into the job in an organization is directly linked to their opportunity to maximize their own potential in that context. Appreciating the uniqueness of each individual and their contribution, however small, is perhaps the best way to support further performance.” Rath feels that taking the aspirations and unique strengths of an individual into account will create a win-win situation for your company and employees alike.

In the long run, can positive reinforcement really make that much of a difference in bringing out the best in your employees? If my friend Sandy is any example, the benefits are tangible. After we hung up the phone the other night, to justify her enthusiasm, she texted me the note her boss had sent her earlier that week. It said, “I will always expect more from you because I refuse to believe you have a ceiling, but you are off to a great start!”

That’s R+ in action!

By Marcianne Kuethen

*not her real name

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