Discretionary Effort: going the extra mile at work!

I was pondering this topic while observing my new team working.  It’s an interesting concept and one that I need to explore further as I begin the somewhat daunting task of pulling a group of people together, and forming a self-managing, & high performing team.

To give you all a brief overview I am now into week 6 of my new role, leading a team of 15 individuals – aged between 21 and 52. I am the 3rd ‘Head of Department’ in 12 months, and started where my team sit just 6 months ago.

Now I did start from the bottom (so to speak) and some might say have risen to the top of the pile quite quickly – however I did have experience in managing corporate bank branches, and when the outgoing Head departed before lunch one Monday morning, I was asked if I was ready to step back into a management role?

The advantage of having done the ‘base’ role and been relatively successful at it, (enough so that I was promoted into a slightly more senior role after a few months), is that I have an understanding of not only the tasks within the role, but the ‘pain points’ for the team  members.

For instance, that perception of not being appreciated by the wider business;  one of the first team meetings I ran a ‘Traffic Light’ discussion around “with the client at the centre ” what could we/should we ‘Stop’, ‘Start’ & ‘Continue’.  It was an interesting exercise for me to hear what the team was feeling and to start my understanding of ‘their big picture’.


Traffic Light
Traffic Light – Stop, Continue & Start
  1. Coming in early and staying late to get the job done
  2. Splitting the whole team for team meetings
  3. Being statistics driven


  1. Training sessions
  2. Reviewing our client calls & giving us feedback
  3. Engaging with the client & understanding what they need
  4. Being supportive of each other


  1. Giving team more credit – we are the backbone of the business
  2. Task rotation
  3. More communication between department teams

These are a few of the ideas that the team came up with that are amongst a whole lot of takeaways for me as the new Head of Department, and certainly more than enough feedback to filter, take onboard and look at what I can realistically impact in the short-term.

But back to my first thoughts on this concept of discretionary effort. What does this actually  mean?

And did I get some clues from this Traffic Light session of how to get this happening?

It is the level of effort people choose to exert in service to their colleagues or clients at work – or not! Employees are paid for the fundamental tasks that he or she has been hired to do – the discretionary effort is the level of effort people could give if they wanted to above and beyond the basic requirements of the job.

This month is known as the busiest period of the financial year for the business I am in – it is the time in which we communicate with every client, either by email or by post. Communication that creates a lot of inbound calls and emails full of questions, requests and more questions!

With volumes so high, the pressure has been on. Some of the team have responded by offering to work a bit later, or come in a bit earlier. I have noticed a couple taking a shorter lunch breaks, and another asking if there was anything else she could do to help out the team.  Some individuals have just got on with the basic tasks, have become less communicative, taken days off ‘sick’ and been generally disengaged.

I read that you can’t pay people enough to remember to go the extra mile but you can produce a work environment in which your employees will choose to go above and beyond themselves.

I wonder how much the age of an employee plays a role with this subject of discretionary effort? – without going into the depths of research right now, it is known that the three generations of X, Y and Boomers are fundamentally different in how they approach the workplace. (Best not get me started on this subject – 3 children all raised in the same house, 10 years apart in age, all with very different work ethics and expectations of what work ‘should’ be like!)

I thought about when I had been at my most engaged and happiest in any job, and had plenty of discretionary energy to burn! What was it that gave me that energy?

  • Understanding the business big picture
  • Clear goals and expectations
  • Rewarded and recognised for accomplishment
  • Ongoing feedback
  • Performance coaching
  • Management attention and support

After managing people and leading teams for some years, I know what works for one person won’t ‘do it’ for another – however I have to start somewhere so drawing on my own experience of being fully engaged I have put the following ideas into place.

  1. Monthly 1:1’s – a time for each person to have some quality time to discuss themselves, what they want to achieve, what their dreams and goals are
  2. Regular team meetings to talk about the big picture, do some training and have a little fun with some team building exercises
  3. Coaching – in my environment I can do this a couple of different ways;  however I am trying something the team haven’t done before. I am sitting beside them, observing and giving feedback on-the-spot. We then come up with an action plan to work on and then get together again to see how that is going

I am fortunate to have a great line manager who is keen to support me and the team, and so I have spoken to him about some other ‘levers’ we can use to get real engagement from the team. He is onboard 🙂

I am attending another department meeting to ensure I am across that part of the business, and they know what we are doing. This was one of those ‘Start’ thoughts from the  wider team and an easy one to tick off with better communication between the teams.I will increase this involvement to other parts of the business as I move forward.

On Monday the team will be working to a new methodology –  task rotation was asked for in ‘Start’. Not quite rotating the tasks, but after 6 weeks of observing, using people’s strengths to manage the tasks rather than having everyone doing everything!

I am trusting this will nail another couple of ‘pain points’ quickly and effectively – I’ll let you know how this goes in a month.

An employee who is empowered, happy, and committed to her or his work takes the service they provide one step further. Retaining that client through a fantastic service experience is easier than bringing on new clients – every time.

My job is to find a way to tap into this discretionary effort by creating a positive workplace environment – it will take a bit of time, and lots of my energy. But I believe it is not only worth it but essential for the business.

A happy employee is not only choosing to use that discretionary effort to go above and beyond the basic requirements of their role, they are committed to the business and feel empowered, recognised & rewarded!

My husband is a big fan of Tony Hsieh’s philosophy on ‘Core values of culture’ – he is the CEO of a company called Zappos in America. He lives by, and hires for, using a core set of values that he developed over a year, and revisits annually with all employees of which he has around 1500.

  1. Deliver WOW through service
  2. Embrace & Drive Change
  3. Crete Fun and a Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative and Open-Minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning
  6. Build Open and honest Relationships with Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do MORE with Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble

These 10 core values really make you think don’t they about your own business, or company values and how relevant they are to building an engaged team.

I think I definitely got some clues on what I can do from the ‘Traffic Light’ session that will impact this idea of discretionary effort. Not only will I refer to this as I make changes as a measure for myself, and take onboard lessons learnt along the way to become a better leader – as a team we will continue to cross of the completed activities and add anything new as it comes up.

If I can pull this off, I am well on my way to achieving that self-managing, high performing team – what did that chap Ralph Waldo Emerson say?  “Life is a journey not a destination”?

In business it is about the destination, or the results. However you can’t get there without the people, and that’s my journey to navigate right now.

Happy staff, happy clients, happy boss!









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