Discretionary Effort

The Place Where Culture & Creativity Blend & Thrive. 

Discretionary Effort is the level of effort people could give if they really wanted to, above and beyond turning up and doing the perceived minimum required to get paid.

Learn, apply, succeed, and take the super quick questionnaire below to understand how you can redefine your culture to improve 'Discretionary Effort' in your team. 


One of the greatest challenges in modern leadership is to move beyond performance management and inspire authentic contribution. Historically many companies have managed performance in such a way that it motivates employees to avoid consequence, (punishment) when their performance falls below the minimum required:

  • Introduce a negative consequence
  • Remove an existing positive consequence

This approach will get short term results when applied on mass, however it suppresses discretionary effort because there’s nothing in it for people to do more than the Minimum RequiredPlus it burns out the leader who feels like they are consistently having to apply pressure and get nowhere... consistently. 

You earn discretionary effort through the effective use of reinforcement, not the threat of punishment. You earn it through setting consistent 'Minimum Expectations' which is every time you take the field of play, you commit to playing at your very best, however good that is that day, in support of your team members and elevated by your shared idealised future and sense of collective purpose.... Big Arrow Thinking.

The concept of positive reinforcement is pretty simple to apply: Reward behaviours you want to see repeated… When you catch people doing the right thing, the right way recognise it and express yourself to them stimulating the persons internal reward centre.

Negative reinforcement, should not be perceived as negative in the general sense, where the undesirable behaviour is highlighted assertively and is amenable to change. One way you can positively employ negative reinforcement is by removing the stimulus that was preventing the behaviour you desired instead of punishing or penalising the person for not exhibiting the desired behaviour.

In one example our client moved their Finance Director, who was a natural go-to for advice on issues, out of the general office and into her own office, as her work was being distracted by everyone asking her for help and experience on non-financial systems. Executive management, who were blind to this behaviour could have punished or penalised the finance director who was not completing reports on time, but chose wisely to understand the behavioural patterns within the general office and reinforce the team member. The Finance Director was also coached on how to negatively reinforce others by asking them how they think they should do something, rather than by going and showing them, or doing it for them.

Think of the outcome from positive reinforcement as leaving the person feeling rewarded and the outcome of negative reinforcement leaving the person feeling relieved or having held themselves accountable.

Importantly, reinforcement – whether positive or negative – always results in an improved behavioural outcome.

Interdependency is key to drive innovation through collective contribution, where team members are pulled along together influenced by a strong sense of purpose. Therefore, directors and executives must shift away from the traditional concepts of ‘Push’ Leadership.

One thing is abundantly clear, you cannot make people apply discretionary effort. There is no correlation between traditional “push” leadership approaches, such as one-way directives or stick and carrot performance management, to people’s willingness to be a more creative, more energetic, or more passionate in service of each other and of the customer.

Today, encouraging more people to be proud of their work, to go that extra mile, to ponder the challenges they face with greater focus and emotional attachment to resolving them, is an essential skill for modern leaders.

The challenge is no longer to ensure that team members perform tasks consistently and reliably, using outdated appraisal scoring systems to rank them once per year. Now we need ‘Pull’ leadership approaches, aimed at encouraging individuals to share ideas collectively and constructively, where perceived leadership effectiveness and support are major determining factors for team success.

Performance driven organisations were designed to focus on WHAT ‘they’ need to ‘DO’, which is inextricably linked with people’s Compliance to performance in order to determine results… Purpose driven organisations focus on WHO ‘we’ need to ‘ BE’, and ‘WHY’ we’re doing it, which is inextricably linked to its people’s ‘Commitment’ to contribution and value, the emerging determinants for better results.

Businesses must now tap into this shift from individual to collective consciousness to mobilise team cohesion and move away from the Ego Purpose of the Have-To-Do toward the Collective Purpose of the Want-To-Do. This can only happen when you raise and expand the awareness and emotional, motivational and adversity intelligence of individuals and of the entire organisation.

The challenge is where to start the convergence to a purpose driven organisation, creating a platform to continually disrupt the norm through information sharing, excite the potential through vision/goal setting, and close the creativity gaps from a position of phycological safety that fosters Discretionary Effort.

Fundamentally, discretionary effort is a Leadership / Cultural Issue, not a People issue. If your team members are the type of people who are willing to fight for something they truly believe in or want, which describes most, then they have the capacity to apply discretionary effort. You therefore need to ask the difficult question if its the culture you as the leader has allowed to evolve they don't believe in or want?

When your culture is redefined to support Discretionary Effort, and your team realise some collective wins, you will begin to recognise it’s contagious affect as it gathers momentum. Just think of any winning sports team over the course of a competition, season or league and you'll be able to relate.

Lets Start To Understand How To Improve Discretionary Effort In Your Team.

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