Discretionary Effort: Performance Nuances and Leadership Response

An HR leader mentioned “discretionary effort” in a recent succession planning workshop. I really liked the phrase’s elegance.  We usually speak in terms of “above and beyond” which has a gung-ho, superhuman feel, calling to mind late-night work sessions, pre-dawn emails and extreme intellectual exertion. It’s all about in-your-face sacrifice and obviously connects to a specific goal. 

How hard are you willing to work?

“Discretionary effort” is more coy.  It’s the quiet, calibrated choice someone makes about how much work they’ll do relative to their role and broader corporate initiatives.  It may throw them onto the hero’s stage with the “above and beyonders,” or just create the confident dependability that surrounds a go-to person.  On the other end, a colleague may decide to expend “just enough” effort.  While it may not advance their career, competently doing the job one was hired to do is sometimes fine.

Then there are those who choose to drop the bar lower and still hope to get by. Sometimes this lesser discretionary effort is so subtle that it’s barely noticed or only noticed over time.  It may seem so slight that it’s hard for a busy manager to muster the energy or data for a discussion around expectations.  Then it’s the leader who’s calibrating effort.  Ultimately, this drip, drip of lost productivity becomes a bucketful of missed opportunity and discontent among harder-working colleagues.

I like “discretionary effort” for its shades of grey and acknowledgement of choice.  It encompasses the decisions an employee makes regarding the amount of energy they expend, as well as how much attention a leader directs towards managing that employee.  Noticing what an employee is doing or not doing well is one thing; choosing how much follow-up time, energy and emotional oomph it is worth is another.

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