Discretionary Effort

Discretionary Effort

“Discretionary effort” is a term often uses to describe the extra effort that some folks choose to put into whatever they’re doing. In the context of the workplace, it can mean things like working extra (unpaid) hours, attending to things outside of one’s immediate responsibilities, helping folks in addition to doing one’s own work, and so on. It’s a close cousin of that bête noire of organisations everywhere: “Employee engagement”. (Engaged employees are those employees who, amongst other things, contribute by way of discretionary effort).

I’ve worked with numerous managers and executives that ache to see more discretionary effort from their people. But discretionary effort is just that – discretionary. At the discretion of the folks involved.

When folks choose to put in extra hours, they do so because they’re motivated to do so. Sometimes this motivation is intrinsic (e.g. joy or pride in the work), and sometimes it’s extrinsic (e.g. bonuses, praise, threats – whether real or implied, etc.).

Of those managers and executives I’ve worked with, none have understood the psychology behind discretionary effort. Many have tried to incentivise it or exhort their people to greater discretionary efforts. Few have sought the psychological roots of intrinsic motivation (for which see e.g. Dan Pink’s book “Drive” – which explains these roots as “autonomy”, “mastery” and “purpose”).

Aside: Intrinsic motivation, and the conditions which help it to emerge, is the hallmark of the Synergistic mindset, and conspicuous by its marked absence in the working conditions fostered by the Analytic Mindset – Cf. the Marshall Model.

If we but think about it for a moment, extrinsically-motivated discretionary effort is not actually discretionary at all (although we do all have a choice in the face of workplace violence). Extrinsically-motivated extra effort is coerced, forced, obliged – or done for the reward(s), in which latter case it’s not “extra”, unpaid, effort per se.

So, real discretionary effort, much sought after as it is, is down to intrinsic motivation only. And as my popular post “Six FAQs” explains, we cannot coerce or force intrinsic motivation. We can but set up the conditions for intrinsic motivation to happen, and thereby hope for discretionary effort to emerge.

We can’t change someone else’s intrinsic motivation – only they can do that.”

And, by extension, we can’t increase someone else’s discretionary effort – only they can choose to do that.

So, if like so many other managers and executives, you’re aching for more discretionary effort, what will you do about it? What will you do about understanding the psychology behind intrinsic motivation, and about creating the conditions for intrinsic motivation to emerge?

– Bob

P.S. I’ve conscious chosen to NOT explore the morality – and rationally – of expecting employees to contribute “free” hours above and beyond their contractual terms of employment. I’d be happy to pen another post on the pressures of business, and in particular the pressure of the “runway” – a common cause of such urges for “Beyoncé time”-  given sufficient interest and demand.

Further Reading

What exactly is Discretionary Effort? ~ Jason Lauritsen (blog post)

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