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Four Ways To Reach The Discretionary Effort Of Your Employees

In its seemingly never-ending journey to undermine HR as a critical function, a HBR article entitled “The Dark Side of High Employee Engagement” suggests employee engagement may not be good for your organisation.

The authors identify a possible resistance to change, burnout, bias towards optimistic, positively minded employees and losing “the benefits of negative thinking” as being the principal risks. They further see employee engagement as “a HR fad”. They suggest performance is better achieved by an open and safe culture, clear goals and a strong sense of purpose. Despite the fact that these are, of course, traits fundamental to high employee engagement. The authors Lewis Garrad and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic suggest a common perception exists of engagement as being about “happiness”.

The ability to reach an employee’s discretionary effort is a primary objective of any employee engagement strategy. This refers to the contribution an employee can make, above and beyond general performance expectation. Discretionary effort is often unseen effort or judgement but brings significant impact and valuable influence, yielding an otherwise unattainable result. While good management, clear goals and effective systems enable satisfactory output, the door to a person’s discretionary effort is locked from within. Employee engagement is the climate that encourages an employee to unlock that door and contribute at a higher level. It enables teams and workforces to deliver beyond expectation.

Engaged employees giving their discretionary effort means better customer service experiences, higher sales, repeat business volumes, greater margins and ultimately shareholder value. Discretionary effort is the payback that employees give to their organisations in return for providing a motivating and engaged culture in which to work. We set out here four leadership behaviours that will help you reach and leverage your employees' discretionary effort:

1. Don’t just encourage employees to speak up, invite them to disagree. 

Listen to their contributions, asking them to qualify their suggestions and re-work thoughts and proposals where gaps arise. Far from creating tension, this reduces it, as leaders spend time allowing an employee’s natural thoughts to emerge rather than to remain constrained.

2. Give your employees an opportunity to influence and observe how they respond. 

Allowing them to realise their own potential is a powerful force; watching and coaching them on how to interact and lead others on a task or project is high value learning. By sharing this trust and making them feel valued, they grow their personal responsibility and commitment.

3. Resist the impulse to solve and decide everything.

90% correct solution fully implemented is better than a 100% solution that is poorly activated. A leader’s primary objective is to ensure that the best outcome is obtained. This is best achieved when the leader does not directly undertake a task, but coaches team members to perform at their highest. It also leaves the leader free to surface team member ideas that can be used to enhance output, rather than force a line of thought directly upon them.

4. Develop a strengths based approach to your leadership style. 

Too often in formal feedback meetings, the focus is on how to address gaps in performance. A strengths-based culture seeks to align employees to tasks and projects based on their skillsets, helping to build their overall performance confidence. Ask your team who wants to take on aspects of work and as their self-belief grows, encourage them to take on different tasks that require similar competencies to widen their personal skillsets.

The theme throughout these leadership behaviours is growth and respect. Engagement is a positive for any organisation, though it comes in many forms. Ultimately being transparent, encouraging respectful debate, providing personal learning and growth, while creating space for the results to be shown, are actions that will lead to a higher return on your significant labour investment.