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7 Deceptively Simple Ways to Inspire Discretionary Effort

Written by
George Dickson
George Dickson

There's minimal effort—doing just enough to meet expectations—and then there's discretionary effort—the effort that requires a person to decide how far beyond the bare minimum they are willing to contribute. Discretionary effort can make the difference between a satisfactory team, and an extraordinary team—but what does it take to inspire and support that effort?

It's not easy, but it's simple. A large part of both the challenge and the opportunity lies in the intentional design of your working environment and culture.

Although the physical environment your team works in is important, perhaps the more important and impactful environmental factor is how their work (and their workplace) makes them feel.

Here are some simple things you can do to help provide that environment and support their efforts.

1. Give them a reason

You can't expect someone to commit themselves to expend an extraordinary effort if they don't have a good reason to.

So what kind of reason can you provide that's compelling enough?

One of the most common methods organizations use is compensation (for example, a performance bonus for exceeding a quota). Their reason for going the extra mile is directly tied to the amount of monetary compensation they'll receive in return.

The greatest challenge with this approach is that it focuses solely on extrinsic rewards, and, while no one is going to say no to extra cash, not everyone is best motivated in this way.

A more sustainable approach is to help team members find the greater purpose behind their work. If someone has an intrinsic drive to achieve or exceed their objectives, it's going to be much easier to inspire discretionary effort if they understand how their work impacts a greater goal.

2. Provide the necessary tools, assets, and support

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You want your team to give that extra effort, but it's just as important to provide the elements necessary to maximize the results of that effort.

Your team can either:

  1. Exert extraordinary effort toward overcoming their lack of proper tools or blockers in order to reach a point of acceptable productivity, or
  2. Exert extraordinary effort toward moving their team and the organization forward with the right tools, fewer roadblocks, and the right support.

They can't do both, so if you want that extra effort to mean something, it's crucial to clear a path.

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3. Give them room

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One of the easiest ways to motivate an employee to go above and beyond expectations is to give them the autonomy they need to set their own expectations, which may exceed your own.

The most you can ever expect to get with a command-and-control mentality is exactly what you ask for. Employees who are given more control over how they approach their work often find a better way to do it. 

This doesn't mean a completely hands-off approach is best; it's still crucial that you're there to provide the support they need. The key is achieving a balance between providing support when it's needed and staying out of the way of progress.

4. Show appreciation

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If an employee puts forth an extraordinary effort, and that effort isn't recognized or appreciated, don't expect a string of repeat performances.

Imagine getting the exact same response (i.e., none) for making a major contribution that you would for barely meeting expectations. What's in it for you if you put in that extra effort?

By showing appreciation and recognizing discretionary effort, you're providing critical validation for the effort that goes above and beyond the minimum, and encouraging similar effort in the future.

In addition to providing validation, you're making it clear to others that discretionary effort is valued in your organization.

Don't stop with yourself or the leadership team though. 

One of the easiest ways to ensure that exceptional contributions are recognized and rewarded is to empower and encourage peer-to-peer recognition.

5. Encourage collaboration and camaraderie

In their Employee Engagement and Organizational Culture Report, our friends at TINYpulse found peers and camaraderie to be the #1 reason employees go the extra mile at work.

You can harness this innate characteristic by encouraging frequent collaboration and teamwork. When there are other peer stakeholders involved, it's much more likely for employees to put that extra effort into a project or initiative.

Find projects and other activities to bring your team closer as individuals, and illustrate the impact each member's contributions have on the group.

6. Be consistent

It's a good step in the right direction, but not nearly enough to do any of this on a one-off basis. 

Consistency is a major key to successfully inspiring discretionary effort because it helps to set the expectation for your team.

Don't make the mistake of planning one team project, or thank someone for their hard work once then call it a day. If you want to see consistent positive results, you need to provide the same level of consistency in providing support, appreciation, and creating a collaborative environment.

7. Stay positive

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You're going to have a hard time inspiring extraordinary effort with an iron fist or a bad temper.

If you want to inspire your team to exceed goals and give their best effort on a regular basis, you need to reinforce that behavior through positive outcomes.

Negative reinforcement will generally only incentivize someone to do just enough to avoid further negative reinforcement.

Setting your trajectory

Increased discretionary effort can have a considerable impact on the success of your organization, no matter what size or industry. If you're having trouble, start by implementing even just one of these tips. You might be surprised at how much of an impact a single, intentional change has on your team's trajectory.

When you're ready to take the next step toward inspiring your team to do their best work every day, check out our latest guide:

2022 HR Leader Report

Originally published on November 16, 2016 → Last updated March 12, 2022

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George Dickson

George is dedicated to strengthening organizational cultures with thoughtful leadership and frequent recognition. George formerly managed content and community at Bonusly.

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