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What is “discretionary effort”?

February 4, 2013 / 2 min read

For generations, dairy farmers have reported that contented cows give better milk. Bill Catlett and Richard Hadden applied this adage to corporate America in their “Contented Cows” series of books, most recently with “Contented Cows Still Give Better Milk: The Plain Truth About Employee Engagement and Your Bottom Line.”

The book contains a number of case studies linking a contented staff with a healthy bottom line and includes a number of actionable tips for managers at companies of all sizes. For this blog, however, I want to focus on a concept the authors touch on repeatedly: discretionary effort.

According to the authors, who borrowed the concept from a study linking motivation to productivity, humans can “regulate their involvement in and commitment to” a given task; moreover, the extent to which we do or don’t contribute is governed “more by attitude than by necessity, fear, or economic influence.” In short, the study revealed that there is a measure of effort that we, as individuals, can apply at our discretion. This led to the coining of the term, “discretionary effort,” which is defined as the difference between that minimally necessary level of effort and that which we’re capable of achieving. According to Hadden and Catlett, it’s the difference between obedience and high performance and between those who are managed and those who are led.

So how do we entice people to put forth that extra effort and work up to their full potential? The authors postulate that we create positive cultures that encourage staff commitment, where staff are cared about and empowered, where staff are content like those productive dairy cows. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept of discretionary effort in the weeks since the FORTUNE “100 Best Companies to Work For” list came out. I feel fortunate to work at a company where people regularly go above and beyond, where people want to excel, and where “good” doesn’t begin to be good enough. I say it all the time—we couldn’t be anywhere near as successful as we are today without our staff and their discretionary effort. Like Andrew Carnegie once said, “Take away my factories, and I will build a new and better factory; but take away my people, and grass will grow on the factory floor.”

What about you? What do you do at your organization to encourage staff to work at their highest and greatest potential?

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