It’s a term all too commonly used — discretionary effort. Some may even call it discretionary performance. Generally speaking, we understand enough to know that when it comes to employees delivering it, we want and need as much as we can get. But what truly is discretionary effort and why do so many leaders struggle to get more of it?

At its core, discretionary effort is the level of effort or performance that people can choose to give above and beyond what is expected or required. According to the 2013 State of the American Workplace Report, only 70% of employees report giving their all at work. In my experience, that number is actually closer to 60%, but, regardless, the point is clear that earning discretionary effort can make or break a company’s bottom line.

Enter managers. What role do they play in earning discretionary effort from employees? The answer is that they are most directly in control of what employees do or don’t give at work. What managers say and do, whether intentionally or not, has a direct correlation with employee performance. Unfortunately, most managers by default resort to responses like “I have a better idea,” “We tried that and it didn’t work,” or similar statements that diminish the potential for discretionary effort.

While most managers do not intend to negatively reinforce employees, statements such as these are typically made in an effort to move things along. If you want real change in the form of above-and-beyond performance, you must consider consequences of behavior — and how they are likely to cause the performer to want to do more or just do what is required.

To break negative patterns and bring about lasting, positive change, managers should try the following:

  • Take note of your actions. Take some time to reflect on your interactions with employees. Ask yourself, “How do I typically respond to suggestions and input?” and “Do I recognize and reinforce employees who do more than they are asked or required?” Because we become so comfortable with our daily interactions, it’s possible to lose sight of what we say and how it affects others.
  • Identify what individuals find reinforcing. When it comes to reinforcement, one size does not fit all. What reinforces one may punish another (think public praise). Be sure you understand and apply the right reinforcers for each individual.
  • Establish yourself as a reinforcer. The more you understand behavior and, more specifically, the correct and effective use of positive reinforcement, the more you will become reinforcing to those who work with you. Positive reinforcement is contagious. If you can establish yourself as someone who recognizes and acknowledges the good work of others, you will find that reinforcement will become a part of who you are as a manager, and the good performance of your employees will grow exponentially.
  • Go out of your way to reinforce good work. I can’t say this enough. When you see people perform well, reinforce it! One of the best ways to do this is to ask them how they have done something or have them tell you more about what they did. When you encourage others to talk about the good they have done, they will naturally be reinforced and will be more apt to deliver discretionary performance going forward.

In summary, my advice is to recognize that discretionary behavior comes from a response to the actions of managers. If you find yourself blaming employees for not doing their best, remember that it always comes from what you, the manager, say and do. Focus on positively reinforcing the behaviors that fit the mission, vision and values of your corporation. If you spend more time on this than on what people do wrong, you will see results not only in your own effectiveness as a manager, but also in the amount and consistency of discretionary performance your employees deliver.

Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D., is founder of management consultancy Aubrey Daniels International, president of the Aubrey Daniels Institute, and author of “Bringing Out the Best in People” and five other business books. He can be reached at acdaniels@aubreydaniels.com.

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