Discretionary Effort Leads to Employee Engagement

Man climbing a buildingIt’s fundamentally important to understand that all human behavior is motivated by something.  Further, motivation is an internal process and highly personal.  A clearly defined goal is the outcome which hopefully those efforts are directed toward, and that requires a conscious exertion of physical, mental and psychological energy.  Okay?  This “Psych 101” blurb is intended to raise your curiosity, so hang on here we go.

Companies for a long time have rejected the notion that human behavior falls within their purview.  But it does.  No work gets done unless there is some human behavior; behavior is the way people conduct themselves and the actions they take.  Most importantly, employees individually have discretion over their own behavior and the achievement of their personal satisfaction, if not their personal success.

For the last 30 plus years, we’ve been proving and demonstrating that behavior can be predicted and measured.  We’ve won two SHRM Impact Awards for both organizational and employee development with our Team Development Strategy and its metrics-driven approach for performance management.  The core component of this award-winning system is our Personal Strengths Inventory (PSI) and its easy-to-understand assessment of what drives every employee’s discretionary behavior.

In my book, Team Covenant, I focus a lot on the emerging workforce as it earnestly seeks a socially responsible employment experience.  The strong desire to align personal and professional goals is something companies need to better understand as this group becomes the workforce of the future.  PSI’s Career & Work-Life Grid Report is a very helpful tool in looking at employees individually, and then we look the entire organization through our quantifying CULTURE report based on the aggregate data.  Both of these reports help in this alignment process to ensure that each person in the organization can see the direction of the organization and how their individual goals fit in with the “Big Picture”.  Employees need to see how their discretionary efforts (their personally selected behaviors) coincide with their employer’s strategies and goals.  To the extent that these organizational and personal goals align, sustained employee engagement will occur.

The role of management is popularly described as coach, mentor, leader, and other similar terms in today’s jargon.  Managers at all levels must realize that one of their most important roles is linked to their ability to manage, communicate, and track organizational goals and then to link reward systems to individual and team performance.  To the extent that the management team is on board with this approach, the rest of the organization will have a clear path to follow.  When management can get employees actively engaged in the development and achievement of the organization’s strategies and goals, employee discretionary effort will increase; and along with it, increased retention, motivation, and productivity (all properties of an engaged workforce) will result.

The accusation is often made that employees don’t care and that work ethic changes tied to the workers’ generation is leading to a self-centered and disengaged workforce.  Again in Team Covenant, I point out that the greatest problem facing organizations today is not employee apathy; rather, it is a sense of futility.  Futility occurs when employees are not kept informed about what is going on around them and they don’t know where they stand.  They are not really sure of what they are supposed to be doing and they don’t see the result of their discretionary effort.  They are not allowed to think for themselves or make appropriate (for their level) decisions on their own.  Futility happens when employees are not allowed to express ideas or points of view, and they are not given a voice in what they do – how they exert their energy – how they behave.

High performing managers and employees do care, and they care very much.  They want more than a job.  They want a lastingBusiness win - a couple and engaging relationship.  When employees are told to simply be compliant, do just what the job description mandates, told that as an individual they aren’t all that important, that generates futility.   As important as anything else, recognizing that if futility is the chief obstacle facing organizations today, then self-determined motivation is the chief facilitator of employee satisfaction, productivity, and engagement and it’s worth driving home the point again that engagement is a powerful catalyst for innovation.  Innovation can be seen as “applied discretionary behavior”.

To sum this up, here are 3 concepts for managers to consider personally, then as a management team, and then to pose to the organization’s individual employees and employee teams:

  •  Does each and every member of the team exude the fundamental characteristics of a fully engaged employee and do they demonstrate that engagement through their behavior as witnessed through initiative, passion, and accountability?
  • What motivates ME to go above and beyond in my job performance?  Every person is unique and equal opportunity does not mandate identical treatment.  How can we align goals to harness discretionary behavior?  What uniquely motivates each individual?
  • Given the opportunity to contribute to (be more involved with or engaged with) the organization’s vision and goals, how would this impact my commitment to both organizational and personal success?

The answers to these provocative questions are the formula for employee engagement and discretionary employee effort.