Closing the “Discretionary Effort” Gap

by Julie Winkle Giulioni

Be honest. If you had a gas or water leak, you’d fix it. If an investment was draining your portfolio, you’d sell. So, why are so many smart leaders willing to accept “discretionary effort” as an inevitable feature of — and drain on — business today? Why do we allow employee energy — a precious natural resource — to routinely be wasted?

Condoned sub-optimization

Discretionary effort is the difference between the effort an employee is capable of bringing to a job or task and the effort actually required to just get by. According to Impact Achievement Group research, “The average American employee feels that the effort a person has to give in order to keep his or her paycheck is about 70% of what they feel they could be giving.”

Leadership IQ research indicates that 72% of employees polled admit they aren’t giving their best effort. And, in the same study, 77% of their managers agreed.

There’s clearly a disconnect between what employees are capable of and what many actually do. So organizations respond with a variety of initiatives, programs, and training designed to tap into that differential. Leaders learn and work valiantly to apply strategies and skills to cultivate greater effort from employees. But this approach is limited and time-intensive. As a result, we let about 30% untapped potential go down the drain.

Like draining the ocean with a teaspoon

The work of individual leaders with their employees to tap discretionary effort is admirable, but it’s also a lot like trying to drain the ocean with a teaspoon. Perhaps it’s time to allow a more holistic, systemic approach to replace the time-consuming, ad hoc activities undertaken by busy managers and leaders.

Instead of trying to coax the latent skills and energy out of employees, activate unapplied capability or go through the machinations of engagement, involvement, and interest (in an effort to tap discretionary effort), perhaps it’s time to approach the challenge differently. Time to change what’s required to “just get by” to close the discretionary effort gap.

  • What if we raised expectations to better align with actual capacity?
  • What if excellence was the standard?
  • What if one’s best effort was required to “just get by”?
  • What if we eliminate the whole idea of discretionary effort by making 100% (or darn close to it) the performance goal?

Not as harsh as it sounds.

Expecting people to activate and realize their full effort every day has the potential to drive productivity, innovation, and results beyond most other improvement initiatives — but only when organizations commit to five key priorities.

  1. There must be no discretionary or untapped effort by the organization when it comes to recruiting, hiring, and retention. A team of highly skilled and capable individuals will inspire, support, and drive each other toward higher levels of effort.
  2. Sustained high levels of effort require training, retraining and training again to keep skills sharp. Enable people with the information, knowledge, and capability they need to do their jobs with ease. This is the only way that bringing forth their best 40-60-80 hours each week is sustainable.
  3. Supply the equipment, tools, and resources to support excellence. Failing to do this shows up in study after study as one of the greatest frustrations to employees. And not having what is needed to perform at the highest levels becomes permission to back off. This creates the untapped potential that is discretionary effort.
  4. Organizations that demand optimal effort and performance must be willing to share the rewards. While money may not be the top motivator for most employees, inequity is definitely among the most powerful de-motivators for most of us. Compensation that’s transparent and aligned to the results delivered enables sustained best effort.
  5. Work-life balance. The kind of environment characterized by everyone working at 100% effort is more intense than then normal 9-5 grind and requires the organization to honor and encourage principles of work-life balance. Intense effort demands intense rest. Employees must be able to escape their jobs, turn off their cellphones, and have time to rejuvenate and replenish the energy invested in their work.

Given the performance pressures most organizations experience, the time might just be right to de-emphasize the tactics of involvement and engagement, and begin considering a broader strategy to drive results by taking discretionary effort out of the equation.

What could your organization do with another 30% effort by employees? What other support is required to really close the discretionary effort gap?


17 In-Competencies of a Leader

I usually don’t make focusing on a negative a pattern, but I couldn’t resist on this one.  Today’s post does have a “dark-side” mirror image that we all see far too often.  Let’s not fall into these traps of in-competencies:

17 Competencies of a Leader (by Lee Glass) 17 In-Competencies of a Leader (by Jim Johnson)
Handle emotions in yourself and others. Live with your emotions on your sleeves and let ‘em fly when you feel like it. 
Make decisions that solve problems. Fail to make decisions that will delay problems.
Show compassion. Show indifference.
Support individual effort. Support individual effort – as long as it promotes you.
Support team effort. Manipulate team effort – see #4.
Respond to identified customer needs React to customer complaints.
Share information Hord information.
Manage cross-functional processes. Keep your employees tethered to the same job duties for years.
Take initiative beyond job requirements. Do what you have to do to get by.
Manage projects. Avoid projects.
Manage time and resources. Let others determine how you spend your time and calendar.
Take responsibility for your own actions and those of your work group. Blame others.
Display technical competence. Blame IT.
Make credible presentations. Create data-dumping presentations.
Create and describe a vision. Follow someone else’s vision – if it doesn’t work, blame them.
Manage changes required to realize a vision. Maintain status quo.
Display professional ethics. Do whatever you have to do to get ahead.

Which side will move you and your department/company forward?  You and I both know the answer…

17 Competencies of a Leader by Lee Glass

June 25, 2012

Business Leaders

Competence is defined as the ability to do something successfully or efficiently. As we know, there are many definitions that describes a leader. Various interpretations! Leaders come in all shapes, sizes, cultures and genders. However, the thought process is that “the stuff” that it takes to be a successful leader is relatively similar.

A study was taken by AchieveGlobal Inc into the nature of leadership and its impact in the workplace. The goals of this study was to determine leadership qualities that top executives in North America need to lead organizations.

This study consisted of 353 senior executives — 143 top managers with the actual title of or functional equivalents of CEO, COO, president or chairman as well as 210 of their direct reports.

The research revealed 17 competencies that make up the profile of a leader. These competencies may be grouped and summarized as follows:

  1. Handle emotions in yourself and others.
  2. Make decisions that solve problems.
  3. Show compassion.
  4. Support individual effort.
  5. Support team effort.
  6. Respond to identified customer needs
  7. Share information.
  8. Manage cross-functional processes.
  9. Take initiative beyond job requirements.
  10. Manage projects.
  11. Manage time and resources.
  12. Take responsibility for your own actions and those of your work group.
  13. Display technical competence.
  14. Make credible presentations.
  15. Create and describe a vision.
  16. Manage changes required to realize a vision.
  17. Display professional ethics.



Having a good day as a manager can be somewhat easy. String together a week of good results? Doable. But what sets apart the leaders from the pack is momentum.

Build on your success continually. Don’t be satisfied with yesterday. When you surpass a goal, find something to tweak. Look at your job from a different angle. Develop customer’s eyes – see your business as they do. You will learn something!

You cannot keep momentum going on our own for your team. Get them involved! Share the numbers. Make sure they understand the numbers! Communicate your progress. Expect their input and challenge them to think.

Gravity provides the momentum for a run-a-way train roaring down a mountain side. In business, the leader provides up the momentum. Most people will eventually coast. You, the effective leader-manager, keeps the goals in sight and motivates and inspires the team to accomplish more than they can imagine.

At the beginning of a new week (day?), find ways to keep on rolling.