Would your organization be more efficient, creative, productive, profitable and fun if every employee applied discretionary effort to his or her work?

Discretionary effort is the proactive application of talent and passion to deliver promised outcomes and to solve problems quickly and efficiently. It’s a conscious choice to do more than the minimum — and the conscious choice to dive in, not passively observe.

The Benefits of Discretionary Effort

The benefits of discretionary effort include continuous improvement, process improvements, and new product or service ideas that gain traction in the marketplace. Another benefit? Higher levels of collaboration, which helps complete big projects and quickly resolve problems.

But discretionary effort won’t happen consistently across your organization unless these three culture characteristics are present:

    • Employees feel strongly committed to the organization and its customers.
    • Employees feel confident that their efforts will be beneficial and valued.
    • Employees have the latitude and authority to try new ways of working within their role.

If any of those three characteristics does not exist, it quashes discretionary effort.

We’ve all seen hard workers reined in by a peer who says, “Hey, don’t work so fast. You’re making the rest of us look bad!” We’ve all observed employees put in long hours to deliver a promise to a customer with no recognition from their boss — or with a teasing putdown by the boss: “Hey, Chris, you finally showed up!” Unfortunately, many organizations have well-entrenched practices like these ones that overwhelm any desire to leverage discretionary effort.

Serving With Respect and Kindness

So, how can you ensure these vital three culture characteristics are present in your organization? How can you inspire team members to bring their best effort to every activity or task? The answer requires leaders to serve every team member with respect and kindness in every interaction.

Cornell University professor Dr. Tony Simons’ powerful article “The High Cost of Lost Trust” ran in the Harvard Business Review in 2002. In that piece, he described his company’s efforts to examine a specific hypothesis in the U.S. operations of a major hotel chain. The hypothesis was straightforward: Employee commitment drives customer service.

Simons and his colleagues interviewed over 7,000 employees at nearly 80 properties and found that employee commitment does, indeed, drive customer service. More importantly, this research found that a leader’s behavioral integrity is the primary driver of employee commitment. (For clarity, Simons defined behavioral integrity as managers’ keeping their promises and demonstrating espoused values.) The research also found that:

    • When employees believe their manager demonstrates behavioral integrity, their commitment increases.
    • As employees’ commitment increases, they willingly demonstrate discretionary effort.
    • When they apply discretionary energy, employees are more proactive, present and productive
    • Employees’ discretionary effort is visible to and valued by customers, who respond by staying at those hotels more frequently, staying longer, eating at on-property restaurants, etc.
    • Those customer behaviors generate significantly higher profits.

Dr. Simons’ team created an assessment that measured behavioral integrity on a five-point scale. The analysis found that a 1/8-point gain (0.125 points) on this scale generated a profit gain of 2.5% of annual revenue — an average increase of $250,000 for each hotel.

This study made an important link: Leader behavior — specifically keeping promises and demonstrating company values — generates profits.

Skeptics will tell you that measuring and quantifying behaviors is difficult at best. Not only does this landmark data prove otherwise, but it also demonstrates that desired behaviors — when monitored, coached, measured and celebrated (and, sometimes, redirected) — have a substantial beneficial impact on respect and results.

The moral of the story? Expect leaders to treat others with respect. Train leaders to act from a servant mindset and with behavioral integrity, and insist that others do the same.

Respect and results will come.