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The difference between the effort an employee can invest in their work and the minimum effort they have to invest in order to keep their job is called Discretionary Effort. It’s like the bonus your employees give you. Time and effort above and beyond. The extra mile.

discretionary effortIf we measure discretionary effort in terms of time on the job, at the workplace or away, we can then graph it as I’ve done at right.

The more engaged an employee, the more discretionary time they will invest. Unfortunately today it’s estimated that 13 percent of the world’s workers are engaged, 63 percent are not engaged, and 24 percent are actively disengaged. That means they’re doing actual damage. They’re not just checked out, not just unhappy at work. They are busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish.

Engage with Trust

The simplest way to increase engagement and gain discretionary effort is to build trust. The best way to build trust is to trust. At work that means rewarding your employees with autonomy. When you show them that you believe you can entrust them with responsibility, most employees rise to fulfill and to gain even more of your trust. They do so by investing discretionary effort.

The following six recommended actions, in one way or another, build trust.

1. Walk the Walk

Employees tend to take on the attitudes of leadership. If you give more of your time enthusiastically, the people you can count on will stand up and follow. The best talent seek out organizations they admire. They leave managers they do not admire.

2. Know What They Want

Whether you hire professionals to run an engagement survey or sit down with each of your employees, find out what they want. Employees who get what they want where they work voluntarily and enthusiastically apply more discretionary effort to their work.

3. Communicate

The more vividly you relate your vision story, the more clearly you articulate your expectations, the more confidence you inspire in your employees’ ability to attain them. Communication demonstrates care and care builds trust.

4. Connect

Leadership Intimacy demands that you know your people intimately—their dreams and desires, strengths and weaknesses—the knowledge you need to engage them as individuals. Connect both ways. Trust them enough to openly share the same things with them and you will inspire trust.

5. Constant Candid Feedback

Once you’ve communicated your expectations, your employees need to hear on a regular basis and in honest dialog how well they are meeting them. Feedback involves both reinforcement of the positive and redirection of the negative behavior. Listen to and address their concerns, not just your expectations.

6. Celebrate and Reward

Every leader needs a plan for recognizing and rewarding the behavior they want to encourage. Include in your plan both spontaneous, informal celebrations as well as regular public reports on who is doing what exceptionally well. Being entrusted with responsibility and independence is just the beginning. Discretionary effort needs to be recognized with discretionary rewards.

Learn more

Gaining discretionary effort requires superior leadership. I strongly recommend our CoachQuest Leader-as-Coach Program. There you will learn and practice the leadership skills you need to address alongside leaders like you from other organizations with many of the same challenges. Learn more about CoachQuest.


Helanie Scott
Helanie Scott
Helanie (pronounced yeh-LAH-nee) Scott, CEO and founder of Align4Profit in Dallas, Texas, has driven stunning leadership and cultural transformations for an impressive list of organizations. She has mastered the ability to connect with her audiences in the boardroom, classroom, on stage, or in one-on-one coaching sessions. Helanie’s Align4Profit clients rave at the way her engaging programs freshen outdated mindsets and deliver results-oriented, aligned action.