What Exactly Is Discretionary Effort?

What Exactly Is Discretionary Effort? 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

A lot of my work lately has been focused in the area of employee engagement, including as it relates to discretionary effort. In fact, I’m speaking at a number of conferences this fall, sharing my presentation “Employee Engagement Is Broken” with human resources professionals.

One of the things that is fundamentally broken about the practice of employee engagement is that there is a lack of a clear definition of the concept. Every employee engagement survey provider in the country has designed a tool that measures engagement in a different way based on their own definition. That’s good business practice for engagement survey providers, but bad news for the leaders and HR professionals who want to do some meaningful work to leverage engagement within their organizations to drive results.

The most common phrase or concept you’ll hear when you start looking for definitions of engagement is “discretionary effort.” A definition of engagement might suggest that the degree to which an employee is engaged is proportional to the amount of discretionary effort they put forth in their job.

This might be a new term for you if you don’t work in HR, so here’s a pretty straight-forward definition of discretionary effort I found:

Discretionary effort is the level of effort people could give if they wanted to, but above and beyond the minimum required.”  —Aubrey C. Daniels, Ph.D.

Discretionary Effort and Employee Engagement

On the surface, discretionary effort probably seems like a reasonable way to measure engagement.  For years, I thought this made plenty of sense.  But now, I’m not as sure.  Here’s why.

Discretionary effort is less a matter of engagement than it is of performance. When you look at the definition above, discretionary effort assumes that a baseline exists that allows for someone to “get by or make do” and that level of effort is somewhere less than what the individual is capable of.

Based on some conversations I’ve had recently with people who manage teams and run companies, most of them hire people with the expectation that they will give their best every day. They hire people with the expectation that they’ll be committed to the organization and their job, that they’ll do their best, and that they’ll do what’s asked of them to help the company succeed. They only tolerate job descriptions because HR forces them to, but they don’t consider a job description anything more than a document. The manager expects the individual to give all they have to give to make the company better.  And, then they know it’s their job to incent and reward them for doing so.

So, if a leader’s expectation is for you to give your best, what then is discretionary effort? What is more than your best? If a leader’s expectation is that you give your all and do your best, and yet we still find that there is a need to talk about and measure for discretionary effort, then I think that points to poor management skills rather than poor engagement. If managers have high expectations but lack the skills to invite their teams to live up to those expectations and hold them accountable, then a gap develops.

In engagement terms, here’s how we describe this gap:

  • Engaged – Someone who voluntarily meets expectations to be their best.
  • Disengaged – Someone who is allowed to perform at less than what is expected

When you look at this through the lens of performance, maybe a new definition is warranted for discretionary effort:

Voluntary employee effort applied to make up the negative performance gap created by either lack of management ability or chronically low expectations.

It bothers me that we’ve gotten so comfortable talking about discretionary effort as the holy grail of engagement. I think it’s time to take a step back and reconsider this notion.

If you do, you may just find that rather than spending so much time trying to improve your employee engagement survey score, you should be putting that effort toward fixing your broken performance management systems, building leaders who invite people to be their best, and creating accountability.

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  • Jason Lauritsen

    Your post intrigues me. Having helped lead sales and client management teams for many years, I’ve struggled with the concept of discretionary effort. Even though much of what our teams did was highly measurable, it was a struggle to build a baseline benchmark of effort and determine what above that was “discretionary” (lots of variables). That’s where I agree with you.

    Where I struggle to continue to agree with you is the Leadership Development and Skills/Training work I performed. There, I met a minority (10-15%) of leaders and employees who demonstrated what I would qualitatively describe as “discretionary effort.” (I could go into this more in depth privately if you would like.)

    When you looked at these individuals’ performance management plans at the beginning and end of year, you could determine that there also was quantitative evidence of discretionary effort.

    Does this mean their job description should have been changed to reflect aspirations for more? Perhaps. But across the bell curve of humanity, would that have been reasonable to expect from the full division’s population? I’m not sure that would have worked.

    Great essay. Sharply cogent. Keep the debate going (wish I could come hear you speak in the Northeast).


  • Meredith Conder

    As a manager, I’m intrigued by the idea that we can measure employee engagement. I work in an environment that sadly hasn’t even considered this.

    To me, I perhaps naively think of employee engagement as engagement in activity outside the scope of one’s job description. For example, an employee who reaches beyond his/her job to impact employee morale or company engagement in the community. As a manager, I feel it’s my role to help the employee find opportunities to develop his/her cache at the company by getting involved in cross-functional activities or committees, streamlining new processes, training colleagues, research market like nemesis.

    I look forward to learning about other performance management tools that define and set goals for employee engagement.


  • Tom Roberts

    Very interesting.

    I work for a company (almost 30 years) where, what many call discretionary effort, is discouraged. For many years I was told that I worked too hard and put in too much OT. When I volunteered to go salary just to keep from losing my mind the request was rejected.

    I ended up starting a company on the side to keep engaged. That is where much of my discretionary effort goes now. I do just enough at my main place of employment to keep everyone happy.

    Still cannot figure out the philosophy there!

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Jason Lauritsen