Is Employee Engagement Really About Discretionary Effort?

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May 20, 2014

We’ve heard a lot of definitions for employee engagement, but most share something in common (whether implicit or explicit): discretionary effort.

Often, discretionary effort is associated with engagement as a byproduct of sorts — the more engaged you are, the more effort you’ll put forth in your job. But, does this argument hold true?

By saying that engaged employees use discretionary effort, we are claiming that all employees have more time, effort, and energy that can be dedicated to the tasks at hand, but that they’re simply (and, possibly, consciously) withholding said resources because they’re not engaged.

Can that be true? To fully understand this argument, let’s look at two schools of thought:

1. Discretionary effort varies by task

We all have job tasks that we truly loathe, as well as some we’d simply rather not do.

These activities are often administrative in nature, or those that may not directly contribute to checking off what we see as most important on our to-do list. They may simply provide little personal reward.

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that some tasks are inherently more engaging than others.

For example, I’m much more engaged when I’m writing a blog than I am when scheduling emails. Because writing and being creative engage me, I choose to dedicate more of my time, energy, and focus to creating something I can be proud of. Hence, discretionary effort.

2. Discretionary effort varies by person

This argument says that engaged employees put forth more effort than their less-engaged counterparts — period.

The type of task doesn’t matter. According to this school of thought, an engaged employee will engage regardless of the task at hand.

When grouping employees by their engagement level (we like to use the categories Fully Engaged, Key Contributor, Opportunity Group, and Fully Disengaged), we should see a correlation to exerted amounts of discretionary effort. Fully Engaged employees would consistently exert the most effort, while Fully Disengaged employees would exert little to no extra effort.

Unlike the previous argument, these “all-or-nothing claims” propose that the extra effort is applied evenly to one’s entire job description, including both menial and rewarding tasks.

If we look closely, we can see a clear distinction between these two schools of thought: the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic employee engagement. While my extrinsic engagement clearly varies by task, my intrinsic engagement does not — it is a general choice I make to be engaged and to do my best work.

So, which argument is true?

Engagement is about both employee AND employer

Both are. In fact, the entire discussion goes back to a point we’ve covered before: engagement is a choice influenced by two parties — employee and employer. The employee must choose to be engaged in her work (a la intrinsic engagement), and the employer must choose to facilitate the employee’s engagement by providing a healthy environment where employees can choose to be engaged (a la extrinsic engagement).

So, when you think about discretionary effort and employee engagement, remember that it’s the byproduct of a two-part equation.

How have you experienced varying levels of discretionary effort in your career? Share your stories with us in the comments.

You can find more from Reese Haydon at the DecisionWise Leadership Intelligence blog.