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Discretionary effort: going the extra mile

Steve Coomber

A runner starting a long run

Employees who are willing to put in additional effort can make or break a company – and finding those who will go the extra mile is the stuff managers’ dreams are made of. Steve Coomber uncovers the secrets to getting your staff to go beyond the call of duty

Whether you call it going the extra mile, acting above and beyond the call of duty, or just doing that little bit more, discretionary effort is a hot topic at the moment. Last summer, the discretionary effort of 70,000 volunteer Games Makers, recruited from 250,000 applicants, was an essential ingredient in the smooth running of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in London.

More recently a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) report on leadership noted: “In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, the key to performance is through engaging employees in ways that produce discretionary effort and creating an environment which encourages greater employee empowerment and voice to facilitate the exchange of ideas and know-how.”

Business leaders also recognise the significance of discretionary effort. “I think it is massively important,” says David Jukes, president EMEA at Univar, a leading global chemical distributor. “It is how things really get done and it's how companies differentiate themselves from one other. The organisations with discretionary effort tend to be the ones that care more, that make things happen, make people feel better about what they do. It makes colleagues feel wanted and appreciated, and customers feel loved and special.”


If you don't trust someone to spend the right amount of time at work doing the job, or to turn up dressed correctly for a meeting, then are you likely to be empowering them to act on behalf of a customer?
Marc Woods, founding director of SladenWoods management consultants and a gold medal winning Paralympian, has been aware of the importance of discretionary effort for some time now. His interest began when he wanted to open a foreign currency bank account; a task he imagined would be relatively easy, especially as a long-standing customer of the bank. But, while the initial process was straightforward enough, when his new cheque book arrived it had the name Mr Underhill printed on it, not Mr Woods.

Never mind, thought Woods, this won't take long to sort out, and rang customer service – to be told by a bank representative that he must have filled his name in incorrectly on the form. Over the next few months, Woods telephoned, emailed, faxed and visited the bank in an effort to fix the issue, but the letters to Mr Underhill kept arriving.

Statistics say that you are more likely to get divorced than change your bank, but Woods had finally reached separation point when discretionary effort saved the day. While at his local branch the cashier behind the counter asked him if he had any banking problems. Ten minutes and a few phone calls later, the problem was sorted.

“She went the extra mile,” says Woods. “It wasn't her job, it certainly wasn't her fault, but she fixed the problem anyway and retained me as a customer. It made me realise how important discretionary effort is, so I decided to find out more about the concept.”

It would be wonderful if all employees were like that bank cashier. Unfortunately for organisations and their customers, that is not the case. Woods discovered, when he canvassed his clients for their thoughts on the subject, that alongside many inspiring tales there was a common refrain: yes some people frequently went the extra mile at work, but there were others much less inclined to do so. Why was that?

It is a million dollar question, and Woods thinks he has an answer. “In today’s organisations, perhaps more than ever before, people matter,” he says. “It is people's actions that contribute to the success of an organisation. Yet evidence suggests there's a gap between what people are potentially prepared to do, and what they actually do. So what stops people from doing that little bit extra? Often it is the environment they're working in, the organisation's culture, their relationship with their manager or co-workers. I wanted to find a way to close that discretionary effort gap.”

Driving results

After commissioning research on discretionary effort, led by Dr Christopher Rotolo, an adjunct associate professor in New York University's psychology department who specialises in organisational psychology, Woods wrote a book based on the results: Beyond the Call: Why Some of Your Team Go the Extra Mile and Others Don't Show.

The crux of the book is the identification of six drivers that organisations can target if they want to create an environment that fosters discretionary effort. At the same time the research showed that aggregate discretionary effort scores derived from these drivers correlated with a range of performance metrics such as group cohesiveness, net promoter score, sick days, quality of performance and job satisfaction.
Essentially the drivers are: autonomy and empowerment; consideration of the individual; self-sacrificial leadership; fairness and equity; identifying with your team; and trust. Focusing on improving these areas, the research suggests, should lead to greater discretionary effort and improved performance. If only organisational life was so simple. Inevitably, improving these drivers in organisations poses many challenges, as the following examples show.

Take autonomy and empowerment. Allowing people the freedom and authority to do their job in the way they best think fit seems sensible. But how do you ensure individuals act in ways that benefit the organisation, rather than damaging the brand? One popular solution is to set clear boundaries.

“I certainly buy into the widespread notion of freedom within a framework,” says David Radford, market management director at insurers Allianz Retail, and former group marketing director at LV=. “The strongest customer services businesses I've seen are really clear on a few key things, such as what they expect from their employees and what employees can expect from them. If you have a clear framework then you can step back and let people operate within it. The people who struggle are those who don't have that really clear sense of what they are there to do.”

Managers must avoid being over controlling, and that's especially true when managing the next generation of leaders. Research by Ashridge Business School and the Institute of Leadership & Management reveals that micro-management is anathema to Generation Y employees. Faced with a micro-managing boss, the only type of discretionary effort millennials are likely to volunteer is leaving to join another organisation.

“Some corporate cultures, in particular the more traditional ones, tend to create restrictions over the wrong things and that can be a barrier or a blocker for discretionary effort,” says Radford. “If you don't [appear to] trust someone to spend the right amount of time at work doing the job, or to turn up dressed correctly for a meeting, then are you likely to be empowering them to act on behalf of a customer?”

Discretionary effort may be voluntary, but it still makes sense for organisations to reward this behaviour.
Fairness, whether that concerns an organisation's processes or the behaviour of managers in the business, is a concept that does not normally get much attention in organisations. However, if apparently inconsequential matters, like the time that colleagues spend smoking outside the office, can cause simmering resentment, then issues such as promotion or pay can send the injustice thermometer sky-high and discretionary effort scores plummeting.

Thierry Nadsic, a professor at EM Lyon business school, is co-author of Social Justice and the Experience of Emotion and an expert on the concept of equity and justice in organisations. “Discretionary behaviours are dependent on the fairness of the firm or the manager,” he says. “Traditionally managers didn't really care about discretionary behaviours, they just wanted people to follow orders. Today, that's not enough for a firm to be efficient.”

Nadsic identifies three types of justice: distributive justice is when individuals make comparisons with others in terms of what they get and what they give; procedural justice relates to the ability of individuals to contribute to decisions that affect their work; and interactional justice is about interpersonal interaction and issues such as integrity and respect. Managers need to attend to all three, says Nadsic.

Jukes takes fairness very seriously at Univar. It was a prime factor when he reworked the company car policy, for example, a common source of contention in organisations. Now employees are allotted a certain amount of money to spend on a car from a prescribed menu, but can over or underspend depending on personal circumstances. “They all have the same amount of money to spend and the same level of choice. It doesn't totally optimise the cost of my fleet,” says Jukes. “But it takes away all the noise around the car policy and stops that benefit being a demotivating factor.”

In the context of discretionary effort, trust operates on several levels – whether an employee feels able to trust the senior management, team leader or peers, for example, and also in terms of how the organisation is perceived, its brand and reputation.

One factor that impacts on trust, and therefore discretionary effort, says Alf Crossman, a senior lecturer in industrial relations and human resource management at Surrey Business School, University of Surrey, is the psychological contract between employer and employee – the psychological and emotional attachment an employee builds with their organisation.

“Several things can get in the way of a healthy psychological contract,” says Crossman. “One of the biggest relates to how employers and managers treat their employees. It is about how employees believe they are entitled to be treated and the kinds of promises that people infer into their employee relationship. What are people prepared to give, and what do they expect to get back in return?”

If something negatively affects the psychological contract, and the employee feels their organisation cannot be trusted to keep its side of the bargain, it may have a negative effect on discretionary effort. “What you do, in essence, is get back at the company by withdrawing that additional effort. You regress back to doing the bare minimum,” says Crossman.

Recognition matters

Discretionary effort may be voluntary, but it still makes sense for organisations to reward this behaviour. Better still, reward people in a way that is consistent with the discretionary effort drivers. Consideration of the individual, another driver of discretionary effort, is particularly relevant here.

“If you want to foster discretionary effort, I do think you need to reward it in a way that is in tune with what would motivate the individual,” says Radford. “If I know that a person is into a certain thing, for example, I might try giving them a reward related to that.”

This principle also extends to the way that these rewards are given out. As Radford points out, while some people are happy to be recognised at an awards event, others would be embarrassed if a fuss was made. So the response needs to be tailored to the individual.

The cynically inclined might be tempted to see discretionary effort as a fancy name for squeezing ever more from employees without paying them accordingly.

Yet, on close examination, this seems unlikely. For a start, by definition, discretionary effort involves choice. Coerced or mandated behaviour is not discretionary. Nor is discretionary effort just about working longer hours. It is impossible to mandate every employee action in every circumstance. Employees are frequently faced with choices about how to behave or act. Do they behave in ways that will provide an additional boost to performance, or to the customer experience, or not? At the point of decision, there is no promised reward or threatened penalty attached to either choice.

“I don't see it as something for nothing,” says Jukes. “I do see it as a fundamental piece of the business culture, to make the customer experience and employment experience far more enriching and far more worthwhile. You have to put a bit extra in. That extra is caring about what matters, seeing it through. You know it's 5pm, but you said that you would call a person back, so you hang on to make sure that happens, instead of walking out of the door. I don't think that any organisation can be successful if it doesn't actually have people caring about what matters. All that you can do is to try to create a climate that fosters that behaviour.”

Despite any challenges involved, the journey to a more discretionary effort-friendly environment is worth it, says Woods. “Employees have far more potential to contribute to their organisation than even their managers imagine,” he says. “No matter what your role or position, you can help your organisation focus on and improve the key drivers that can unlock that potential. Why wouldn't you want to create an environment in which discretionary effort is able to flourish? That's the kind of organisation we all want to be part of.”


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