The Importance of Discretionary Effort—and How To Inspire It

We sparked some interesting conversation when we mentioned Aubrey Daniels in a recent post about the need for more frequent performance reviews.

You might recall that Daniels was among the first individuals to champion the notion of applying behavioral science to the workplace. As a result, he’s widely known as “the father of performance management.” In discussing our post, some people told us that they’re fans of Daniels’ work. Others said that, while important, his ideas focus too heavily on performance optimization and the bottom line—i.e., wringing the maximum amount of hours and effort out of every single employee.

To be fair, that’s not really true.

It is a fact that Daniels’ company focuses on enabling organizations to capture “discretionary effort” from employees. (Discretionary effort is that which goes above and beyond the minimum level required to a job.) But Daniels’ company doesn’t advise clients to extract greater effort at all costs. In fact, its approach to performance management advocates that employers manage their people with sensitivity and manage performance based on behavioral measurement and analysis, ongoing performance feedback to employees, and positive rewards.

Obviously, Daniels’ behavior analysis-focused approach to performance management will not work for or appeal to every organization. No approach does. In fact, Reviewsnap doesn’t agree with every precept or opinion Daniels and his company espouse. But we do agree with the basic concept that the true heart of great performance management is frequent and ongoing measurement, feedback and positive reinforcement. And we firmly believe that performance reviews can be the vehicle that supports and helps to deliver all of these elements—as long as reviews are conducted properly. We also believe that proper performance reviews are instrumental in capturing discretionary effort.

For those who want a fresh look at Daniels’ approach to performance management, check out an interesting post that appeared in Aubrey’s Blog in July, “Overworked? Could Reducing Workloads be the Key to Improved Results?

At one point, the post states: “… oftentimes we find that people confuse discretionary effort with increasing the volume of work. Discretionary effort is about outcomes, not hours worked. It is about achieving business results through fluency in critical behaviors. It is about identifying and reducing the behaviors that don’t have a business impact and focusing on the behaviors that do.”

Performance management isn’t about squeezing more and more from your employees. It’s about placing them in the right roles, aligning them closely to the company’s goals and mission, and giving them the direction and support they need to reach their full potential. That’s how we get sustained discretionary effort from our people.

One more note on this topic …

In his post, “What Exactly Is Discretionary Effort?”, consultant and speaker, Jason Lauritsen, points out that most of us assume discretionary effort and employee engagement are closely intertwined. After all, an unengaged employee isn’t going to be dishing out a lot of discretionary effort, right? However, Lauritsen suggests, “discretionary effort is less a matter of engagement than it is of performance.” He also calls into question management’s expectations where engagement and discretionary effort are concerned. Bottom line, Lauritsen believes the time has come to redefine our terms.

It’s intriguing stuff. Then again, isn’t everything in the world of performance management?