Discretionary Effort and Decision-Making

Dave MacLeod

I recently had a great discussion with a colleague and fellow blogger, Steve Lamb, about discretionary effort. Great topic.

The idea is that everyone has a set amount of effort they “need” to give toward something which is deemed the minimum requirement. Employees need to show up and at least appear to be working. Students need to be in schools and behave to some extent. Those who want to at least pass a course need to retain enough information to get C’s and D’s.  Parents need to at least get kids clothed and out the door. Teachers need to show up in classrooms.

This level of participation allows the world to go around but – obviously – doesn’t necessarily create the greatest results.

Beyond this minimum requirement, every ounce of extra effort is “discretionary.”  You have to choose it.

So why do some employees give more? Why do some kids try so hard in school? Why do some parents read to their kids at night and talk to them about their classes? Because they choose to. Because above and beyond their required effort, they decide to put in that extra something. They use discretionary effort.

So a great question is: How can leaders inspire discretionary effort?

One way to get at this is to consider situations that are guaranteed to make people feel disheartened and disengaged – and then do the opposite.

If you ever want to demotivate someone and ensure zero discretionary effort, you can simply make big decisions that affect them without letting them know you were doing so until after the decision is made. Whether that decision is raising taxes, changing an employees responsibilities at work or making plans to meet with a group of friends instead of going out for a quiet dinner for two, the key ingredient to demotivating people is: take away their ability to have a voice.

I’m sure everyone can recall a decision that was made without their involvement that left them feeling disengaged with the result.

I’m also sure everyone can recall a moment when an important person in your life asked you for your thoughts on an upcoming decision. It left you feeling valued. And then engaged. And it wasn’t even the results of the decision that made you feel good. It was the fact you were asked.

Many people understand that involving people in the process of decision-making is healthy because it adds insight and creates some level of buy-in to implement the outcome of the decision.

What is perhaps overlooked is that the simple act of asking people for their thoughts – and then showing you at least understand their contribution – opens the possibility of higher performance and passion.

About the Author

Dave MacLeod

As the CEO of ThoughtExchange, Dave provides product vision, team leadership and well-timed jokes. He has been focused on supporting his team as they continue to grow the company to help more and more organizations around the world bring people together by leading challenging conversations about things that matter.