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Culture Change

Discretionary Effort

Chris Harrison

June 19, 2024

There are few jobs in the modern workplace that are not defined by Key Performance Indicators. Few business processes not defined by a Key Business Requirement. Or similar ways of setting performance expectations and the metrics that will show whether or not they have been reached.

In the culture of modern management, these are seen as positive, and so they are. Without them, there would be no norms, no predictability in the business, and nothing for managers to manage.

But successful organisations that depend on the contribution of human beings realise such measures only represent the bare minimum to aim for. Start-up businesses understand this more acutely than established ones. In the formative stage of development, an enterprise cannot know what the norms should be. Instead, it has to focus on stimulating effort.

In the practise of culture change, our primary task is to stimulate positive discretionary effort from employees: voluntary actions that go beyond their formal roles and responsibilities. Positive discretionary effort includes helping a colleague, suggesting an improvement, or taking initiative. By contrast, negative discretionary behaviours include wasting time, gossiping, or sabotaging a project.

Discretionary effort is spontaneous and voluntary. It is driven by an employee's engagement with the job and commitment to the organisation. It is an essential component of a vibrant work culture that contributes to operational outcomes.

If managers are the guardians of business norms, the champions of discretionary effort have to be the leaders. Effective leadership styles, such as transformational, spiritual, and engaging leadership, are critical in encouraging discretionary behaviour among employees.

Transformational leadership fosters a supportive and motivational work environment, leading to improved job satisfaction and overall productivity.

Spiritual leadership promotes self-esteem and workplace spirituality, which in turn contribute to organizational citizenship behaviour (OCB).

Engaging leadership promotes the fulfilment of an employee’s basic needs for competence, relatedness, and autonomy. So, engaging leaders work to strengthen, connect, empower, and inspire employees to increase work engagement and create positive outcomes at both team and individual levels.

In September 1962, President John F. Kennedy of the United States delivered an inspirational speech to his nation from Rice University in Texas. He needed to stimulate one of the greatest demonstrations of discretionary effort the world has ever seen.

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things - not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills.”

Just seven years later, in July 1969, NASA’s Apollo programme put two men on the moon.