It’s the most profitable element of employee effort, and yet by definition, cannot be bought. By understanding how to tap into employee discretionary effort, you unleash the limitless potential of your business.

As humans, we have basic psychological needs that must be met in order for us to experience a sense of success and happiness in both our private and working lives. Internationally acclaimed life and business strategist, Tony Robbins, has written and spoken extensively on this subject. He cites six core needs as being vital to psychological wellbeing, and, by extension, happiness and success in all areas of life.

Robbins believes that all human behaviour is an attempt to meet these six basic needs.

Behaviour patterns can range dramatically from constructive and inspiring, to obstructive and destructive. The dependent factor? The environment in which a person lives and works. Let’s take a look at the six basic needs every person has. These will act as a simple reference point as we look at the role discretionary effort plays within the workplace.

The Six Basic Human Needs

  • Certainty: an assurance that pain can be avoided and pleasure can be experienced.
  • Variety: the need for new stimuli and experiences.
  • Significance: feeling needed, important, unique on some level.
  • Connection/Love: a strong sense of union or closeness with someone or something.
  • Growth: the ability to expand your understanding, capacity or capabilities.
  • Contribution: a true sense of service, with a focus on helping, giving to and supporting others.

The first four needs fall under the umbrella of personality needs. The final two sit beneath spiritual needs. As you’ll see, numbers three to six are the most essential within the context of discretionary effort within the workplace.

Wait, what does discretionary effort actually mean?

Before we get stuck into a good story, it’s important for us to be clear on what the term ‘discretionary effort’ means.

The concept has been around for nearly a century and is based primarily around the power of positive reinforcement. It refers to the level of effort a person could give if they wanted to, above and beyond the minimum required.

But here’s the rub: this potent (and often elusive) effort isn’t for sale. A grudging salary increase or a few days extra holiday won’t cut it. You can’t bargain for it or incentivise it out into the open – you can only access it when a person wants to share it with you. We’ll look at how this achieved a little further on…

Of course, you can buy a person’s ‘on paper’ skills. You can even buy their loyalty to some extent. However, the nature of discretionary effort is such that there is no price tag. So, pop your wallet away and return to the drawing board…

You see, there is another way. Sure, the age old approach of forced compliance and obedience will, to an extent, make employees ‘tow the line’, but is that really what you aspire to within your business environment?

Think of what your business could achieve if instead of the old-school ‘quick win’ methods, you were able to inspire real change in both the way your employees approach their daily work, and, by extension, your business output. An exciting prospect, isn’t it?

Plenty of people are highly qualified on paper. They might be a really great catch for your business. They might look impressive on your website and add clout to your team … But! If you don’t inspire them to bring their discretionary gifts to work with them each day, they’ll simply tick over.

They’ll do what they need to to fulfil their obligations to you as their employer.

Once upon a time …

… a newly married couple were preparing to move house. The husband decided to save his new wife a job by packing her jewellery into one of her purses. He then packed said purse into what he took to be a spare box. As a (very) early test of their marriage, it turned out his wife intended to return the purse to the company she’d just bought it from … in the very same box he’d used. So, the purse winged its way back to the company, along with several thousand dollars worth jewellery! Ouch.

The couple arrived at their new home and began the task of unpacking. When the wife was unable to locate her jewellery, she realised what had happened and was understandably mortified.

She called the company and, happily for her, the customer service representative she spoke to took remarkable action on her behalf. Upon hearing of the errant jewellery, he immediately had the box rerouted to his desk. When it arrived, he decided that shipping the valuables to the couple’s new home was an additional risk he was unwilling to take. So, what did he do?

He bought himself a plane ticket and hand-delivered the jewellery back to its owner. I know, that’s a whole new level of customer service, right?

As you can imagine, the couple were amazed and extremely grateful. The gesture reflected not only the value that they placed on the jewellery, but also the value that company placed on the couple as customers.


What spurred this Zapponian to go to such extraordinary lengths to help a customer?

Was it feeling the pressure to uphold the Zappos value to ‘deliver WOW through service?’ Nope. He could have achieved a relative level of ‘wow’ by simply being easy-to-deal with, helpful and sympathetic. Sadly, customers are very accustomed to speaking with obstructive, ‘this isn’t a fault of ours, it’s not our problem to solve’ customer service reps. So, when you’re fortunate enough to speak to someone who doesn’t resort to reeling off generic corporate spiel … well, it’s pretty refreshing and impressive.

What this Zappos employee did required conscious effort on his part. It required action that strayed from the ‘script’. Action that tapped into what he, as a person, wanted to give of himself in order to deliver the best he could to another person.

He could have comfortably sat within the specific remit of his job role. He could have ticked off the minimum processes required by him in order to satisfy his manager and, ultimately, keep his job. But he didn’t, he went several large steps further than that. He embraced the Zappos ethos to such a profound extent that he decided the absolute best service he could deliver – the greatest gift he could offer at that time – was to use his whole self to hand deliver the jewellery back to its owner.

For a person to take such action, a few fundamentals need to be present. Firstly, they need to care about the organisation they work for (the fourth basic human need – connection). They need to care about its reputation and the customers that engage with it.

“When people are financially invested, they want a return. When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute.” – Simon Sinek, author & speaker

Secondly, they need to feel supported by their managers and the organisation as a whole. They need to feel confident that what they plan to do will have no negative repercussions to them personally. (The first, third and fourth basic needs – certainty, significance and connection).

Thirdly, and most importantly, they must want to use the gifts they have. They must want to go further than the minimum required of them. They must want to offer up their creativity, passion, initiative and imagination! They must want to do the best they can with the particular set of circumstances they’re faced with. (The fifth and sixth basic needs – growth and contribution).

Just as we saw with the Zappos employee, when a person is truly inspired to give everything they’ve got to a task, magic happens.

‘I play when I want to play’

An interesting and telling statement, isn’t it?

Back in 2001, American footballer Randy Moss sparked a serious debate. The statement he made during an interview at the time was one that is still discussed today. So, what did he say that caused such outrage amongst both journalists and fans alike?

He declared simply that, ‘I play when I want to play.’

The response to his statement was pretty unanimous. How dare he suggest that he has a choice as to whether he plays to his full potential? What right does he have to only give 100% of himself when he feels like it? How can he be so arrogant?

But the thing is, he does have a choice. Every game he plays, he makes a private conscious decision: to play – really play – or to simply show up and perform with his team.

We all have this choice every day when we go to work, regardless of our occupation.

A short article written at the time, spoke of the importance of players giving their best, 100% of the time. They owe it to the team they play for and the fans who support them.

If we put this into the context of an employee working for a business organisation, the same expectations are true. Employees owe it to the company and its customers, 100% of the time. This is naive and problematic thinking. It assumes that employee motivation is governed only by the ‘competitive salary’, pool table, and lunch van that swings by the office each day. But what about the psychological needs associated with emotional fulfilment, personal growth and connection?

The article goes on to state that, ‘it’s imperative for Moss to play well if Minnesota hopes to attain elite status in the NFL any time soon.’ Surely the same is true for any organisation wanting to ‘attain elite status’ or be known to deliver outstanding levels of ‘player’ performance? It might be imperative in the eyes of the organisation, but what is management doing to inspire its employees to deliver their game-changing discretionary effort every day?

As the journalist says, ‘…the rewards of playing a game for millions just can’t seem to be enough for some, while the reward of just playing the game is enough for many.’

And so we arrive at the crux of discretionary effort. It cannot be bought. In Randy Moss’s case, $93 million didn’t seem to be enough of a reward. Why? Because as the name suggests, the type of top level effort a person can give is discretionary, optional – it’s born of a feeling rather than a response to pressure, threat or monetary incentive. It is a gift that can be shared – or not.

Leave your management swagger at the door

For many – in fact most – organisations, discretionary effort is rarely on show. Managers the world over moan about their frustration with employees who tick over, never giving it ‘their all’. Plenty will cite what they consider to be inherent issues in the employee as being the reason that ‘they never make the effort to come to after work events’, or, ‘they arrive bang on 9am and won’t leave a minute after 5pm’, or, ‘they seem to contribute the absolute bare minimum during meetings.’

Perhaps these companies are just unlucky and keep recruiting ‘bad eggs’, people who just don’t make the grade and let the side down…

Or, perhaps, it’s got little (if anything) to do with poor recruitment and a general lack of interest on the part of the employee. Perhaps it has more to do with the reasons why these staff members aren’t choosing to spend their optional time at after work events and why they’re so keen to leave the office as soon as they can.

The answers will almost certainly be found by scratching the surface of the environment in which they’re working. If you do this, the cracks will begin to appear and the light of understanding will shine through.

Do they have an open and productive connection with their managers? Do they feel that their opinions matter? Do they feel valued? Do they care about the team they’re a part of? Do they feel involved and integral?

“If you are lucky enough to be someone’s employer, then you have a moral obligation to make sure people do look forward to coming to work in the morning.” – John Mackey, co-founder and CEO, Whole Foods Market

When leaders fail to connect with staff in a meaningful way, bad things happen. Engagement drops, shoulders slump and apathy stalks the corridors, lurking behind desks and polluting the workplace environment.

So, instead of throwing your management weight around and demanding obedience and ‘effort’, consider what you can do to inspire your employees. If you’re prepared to try and understand the driving forces behind discretionary effort, you’ll be rewarded with an overflowing treasure trove of possibility.

Creating the platform for discretionary effort

You can become one of the revered leaders who manage to get the absolute best out of staff each and every day. You can create a progressive mindset within your business and unlock the most powerful, game-changing skills your employees possess; such as imagination, creativity, initiative and passion (to name but a few!)

Isn’t that exciting? It’s all waiting for you, right at your fingertips. When you commit to inspiring discretionary effort, magic really does start to touch all areas of your business…

#1 Show your own competence

There are few things worse for an employee than being badgered about managing their workload, being organised, being punctual, being engaged and enthusiastic by a manager who displays few, if any, of these virtues.

If an employee can see, through your actions, positive results being made because of your discretionary efforts, they’ll want to positively contribute. They’ll start showing up each day with their own discretionary gifts in outstretched hands.

#2 Know what motivates your employees

Get to know your staff. Really get a sense of what drives them. Do you know why they come to work each day? Do you know what struggles they face outside of work? Do you know what excites and inspires them?

You don’t do this to start waving a magic wand and dissolving all their problems, or to bring drama into the workplace, you do it so that you can understand why they show up to work each day. What are their ambitions? Why do they want to be successful, and, more specifically, what does ‘success’ look like to them?

When you understand what drives someone, what hampers their contribution and what inspires them, then and only then, will you understand how to get the best out of them.

“To win in the marketplace you must first win in the workplace.” – Doug Conant, CEO, Campbell’s Soup

You’ll understand that the employee who has come up with some fantastic strategies in the past, also struggles to speak effectively in front of a group. Knowing this about them means you can offer a more one-to-one approach. This will get the best results from them, whilst also giving them a strong sense of connection with you.

This connection will give them a greater sense of identity within their working environment, along with a feeling of significance and value.

#3 Listen

The surest way to make an employee feel invisible and undervalued is to simply direct, dictate and fail to listen.

When you request something of them, explain why you are asking. Treat them to a bit of context in relation to the ‘bigger picture’. Acknowledge what their unique skills and gifts will add and then, when they ask a question or give feedback, be sure to listen.

Listen in an open way. Avoid being preemptive, don’t anticipate their questions or appear to be listening when actually you’re just waiting to speak.

People that feel listened to are likely to respond in a positive, pro-active and empowered way. Conversely, those that feel their opinion and input count for nothing will give you as little as they can get away with. When you’ve finished listening, respond in a constructive and engaging way. This will highlight that you’ve heard them, understand what they’ve said and care about them enough to give them a considered response.

#4 Align your levels of support with the organisation’s values

An example we looked at earlier highlighted the ways in which a Zappos employee went to extraordinary (break this word down, and you’ll have a perfect definition of discretionary effort..extra ordinary) lengths to uphold and embrace the ethos of the Zappos brand.

Although it was his initiative (a discretionary gift) and incredible drive to deliver the best customer experience he could (also a discretionary gift), he was only able to carry out his intended course of action because he felt wholly supported by Zappos. He understood, from being a part of the culture and seeing it practiced (not just preached) that he could go that extra mile (by plane!) to wow the customer on a whole new level.

#5 Make relationships a priority

Great relationships with employees form an integral part of any successful business. Most of us need – and want – to feel a sense of community and togetherness. It helps us identify where we fit in and how we can contribute in a meaningful way. When we’re unable to create strong relationships, we miss out on a great catalyst for positive action.

When people do feel valued and part of something greater than themselves, huge changes occur and remarkable things can be achieved.

#6 Show gratitude

The word ‘gratitude’ is one that we hear bandied around a lot these days, and with good reason. Not only does giving and receiving gratitude improve a person’s sense of wellbeing in their personal lives, it also plays a vital motivational role within the workplace.

If someone has stepped up, delivered great results, given insightful contributions or gone the extra mile to deliver something of fantastic quality – make sure they know that their efforts are acknowledged, appreciated, respected and gratefully received.

Bridge the gap

There’s no doubt that a massive space exists between what people can do when they want to, and what they actually do every day within the workplace.

The deciding factor tends to lie in the psychology and skills of the leaders and management, with the majority of success – or failure, coming down to the strength or weakness of these two things. A much smaller percentage of success comes down to the actual mechanics of the business. If the psychology and skills of the leaders are sound, the rest will generally take care of itself.

In a world where standing out among your competitors has never been harder, unlocking employee discretionary effort has never been more important.

Can your business afford to keep these gifts locked away, beyond the reach of your customers?

To be a truly remarkable business you must recognise what matters most to people. And by people, we’re talking here about both your customers and your employees. Ultimately, both want the same things.

They want the security of knowing that you understand their needs. They want to know you’ll treat them well, that you’ll listen to them, that you won’t take them for granted, that you’ll give them reasons to want to keep supporting you and, ultimately, reasons to want to be your biggest advocates.

Your business is on the brink of something incredible. Something life-changing. Something with the capacity to deliver such a profound impact on everyone that comes into contact with you, your employees and your customers that you’ll wonder how you ever managed without it.

Just imagine what it would be like to see each and every one of your employees bringing their discretionary gifts to work every day! Not only would there be an enormous swell in morale (and a noticeable improvement in employee retention), but you’d see tangible, positive changes ring through all areas of your business.

If every employee was freely giving their passion, commitment, initiative and creativity to every task they faced, think how that would effect areas like customer retention, customer service, customer engagement, product innovation … the list is endless!

All of this is a by-product of your people wanting to bring their gifts to work and share them with everybody they come into contact with throughout the day. Your business can achieve this. Now, go forth and inspire some incredible change – you, your employees and your customers deserve it!