Discretionary Effort: Is It Really the “Holy Grail” of Engagement?

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Sep 4, 2012

A lot of my work lately has been focused in the area of employee engagement.

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 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.

What exactly is “discretionary effort?”

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 to you if you don’t work in HR, so here is a pretty straight-forward definition of discretionary effort that I found at

Difference in the level of effort one is capable of bringing to an activity or a task, and the effort required only to get by or make do.”

On the surface, discretionary effort probably seems like a reasonable way to measure engagement. I know that for years, I thought that 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 will be committed to the organization and their job, that they will do their best, that they will do what is asked of them to help the company succeed.

What is more than your best?

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 a manager has high expectations but lacks the skills to invite their teams to live up to those expectations and hold them accountable to doing so, 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

A new definition for discretionary effort

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 those effort towards fixing your broken performance management systems and building leaders who invite people to be their best, create accountability, and reward people for meeting their expectations.

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