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Years ago, I worked for a boss who would have told you how much he admired, encouraged, and inspired discretionary effort. And he would have been wrong on all counts. However, he would have also told you that he went to great lengths to hire highly motivated people who would ensure his success as a business owner, and he would have been right about that. So, how did the wheels come off his plan?

Highly motivated people don’t need external forces to encourage them to go above and beyond. It’s in their DNA. But these same top performers can cease to perform when their bosses engage in demotivating behaviors, as my former boss did.

For instance, he asked me to participate in a new business development initiative to reach potential clients in a new geographical location that involved me collaborating with the business development professional. I agreed, even though this was beyond the purview of my job.

After the event, he asked me to evaluate the experience. I told him I didn’t think the approach would work for specific reasons. He exploded and told me he didn’t appreciate my negativity, even though he asked for what I presumed he wanted: candor. Of course, I was right, and we didn’t acquire one new client, but the boss never discussed that with me. Nor did he apologize for his outburst.  

A series of episodes like this led me to limit my discretionary efforts and to eventually leave the company. I had been motivated when he hired me, but because of his leadership, my motivation had waned. I didn’t like the way that felt. I liked going beyond expectations, but I really didn’t like getting scolded for my resourcefulness.

I define discretionary effort as the level of performance that goes beyond what’s required. It involves the energy people willingly exert, often in response to internal goals to do more than their bosses expect. Unfortunately, many bosses, like my former one, manage performance in such a way that motivates employees to do only enough to get by and avoid getting in trouble.

You can’t measure discretionary effort with employee satisfaction surveys or any other happy-to-grumpy scale. You see it in the results. Discretionary effort is not a "thing" that responds to events, motivational speeches, training, or any other HR initiative. It surfaces when leaders do these five things:

  • Delegate key decisions and empower others with both authority and responsibility to carry them out.
  • Provide the necessary training and opportunities to develop individual skills.
  • Show appreciation for autonomy and effort, even ones that fail.
  • Encourage collaboration
  • Serve as an exemplar of consistency

Increased discretionary effort can have a considerable impact on the trajectory of any organization, no matter what size or industry. A culture of excellence can’t help but follow.



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