Discretionary Effort and Employee Engagement: the Business Use Case

Date: April 27, 2022

In the past few years, the desire to improve employee engagement has become an elevated priority across many companies, especially during the current business climate. The cost of poor engagement includes the obvious employee turnover and recruitment of replacements, lower productivity, and customer service issues. But what about performance? Hard to track… unless you look at the benefits of increasing the discretionary effort of the team. In fact, there is a business case to focus specifically on the drivers that impact the discretionary effort on the operations.

First, you may be asking, ‘what is discretionary effort?’. Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D. and noted for his passion for applying science to optimize performance on human behavior, stated "Discretionary effort is the level of effort people could give if they wanted to, but above and beyond the minimum required.". Some have called employee’s Discretionary Effort as “going the extra mile” and have taken this concept to represent employees working outside of their schedule to complete tasks. However, that is misguided and it opens the door for complaints of employee abuse and labor-relations complaints. Discretionary effort is really about a fully motivated employee who feels appreciated, recognized, valued and applies a deep commitment for their work. It is about becoming a ‘True Believer’ in the work they do, the team they belong to and the company they work for.

work culture

While the word ‘discretionary’ may lead some to think it describes a worker’s ‘choice’, it really reflects more about the employee’s perseverance and commitment to completing the work. Essentially, when facing a task, it is the employee’s sense of understanding the ‘why’ and their decision to increase their commitment to this task. In a study of 50,000 employees across multiple organizations, the Corporate Leadership Council (CEB) found that a positive engagement determined both a rational and emotional commitment. In addition, through engagement drivers, the employee impacted performance through Discretionary Effort and their impact on the company’s retention by a heightened intention to remain through an applied: 

  • - Rational Commitment to their team and management (as entities) and the company. This is typically the extent to which employees feel financial, developmental, or professional growth within their role.
  • - Emotional Commitment to their job, team and manager (as people) and the organization perceived value. This is typically the extent the employees feel pride, happiness, creativity, inspiration, or meaning from their work.
employee engagement
Source: Corporate Leadership Council

However, the study concluded that rational and emotional commitment did not equally impact Discretionary Effort. Historically, many operational leaders would have suggested performance had a greater link to the employee’s rational logic and loyal commitment to their job. However, the study found that it was really the emotional factors that drove a much greater improvement to performance.

employee engagement
Source: Corporate Leadership Council

In this chart, the study found the greatest impacts to Discretionary Effort was the worker’s:

  • - Emotional Commitment to the job (55.9%)
  • - Emotional Commitment to the organization (43.2%)
  • - Emotional Commitment to the team (38.9%)
  • - Emotional Commitment to the manager (34.0%)

That is an amazing reinforcement that to achieve operational performance, the organization must drive a highly engaged employee!

In addition, the study also found a correlation between general engagement levels performance with an increase of 20 percentile points in overall performance when the employees applied a commitment to their work. Think about the ROI on a year-over-year investment towards increasing employee commitment!

employee engagement
Source: Corporate Leadership Council

This means the way to increase performance is to motivate an employee through their emotions, not logic. That means the key to improved company performance is to motivate the employees through daily company-to-employee and peer-to-peer recognition, with the objective of creating a shared sense of purpose.

So, what about impacts on Discretionary Effort from the type of work that is performed? Or work within non-profit environments? A study conducted by Work for Good of employees within non-profit companies found employees had higher levels of ideals, goals, and expectations. The survey found the non-profit workers:

  • - Had a 93% engagement and 77% high satisfaction level in their role.
  • - About 88% planned to work within non-profit long-term.
  • - 52% responded they felt financially comfortable.

It would be easy to conclude that workers in non-profit benefit from the environment. Is it the work or is it the sense of purpose and emotional commitment? I think it is obvious that leaders from for-profit organizations can replicate similar results by fostering a culture of collaboration, common purpose and creating an army of true believers through the use of an effective rewards and recognition program that is always aligned to your company values. In fact, a major research study comparing public vs. private organizations concluded that “discretionary directed efforts do not differ between public and private sector” companies. Leaders need only to unlock the hidden potential of their workforce.

As Aubrey Daniels suggested, the delta between the worker’s desire to ‘want’ to do the work and ‘have’ to do the work is what defines the outcome of performance. Leaders must get to know their team, shape the environment and foster a culture based on respect, recognition and support. Not only will these employees stay longer but their performance will rise and so will the company’s success. As the champion of building a successful culture through an emotional commitment of the workforce, your business case must start with the business case for performance.

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