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How Can We Improve Discretionary Effort?

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

Very few of us are giving 100% of our energy to our work.

Most will give maybe 70-80%, but that extra “discretionary effort” to get the number into the 90’s is what truly moves the needle in people management. The productivity gap between how much we work and how much we could work costs the UK economy £6bn per year. Unlocking what motivates people to make that little bit extra effort is crucial.

For me, a large part of unlocking someone’s discretionary effort lies in addressing mental wellness and emotional resilience in the workplace. The effects of a personal conflict in the morning can reach well into the afternoon. Your mind is somewhere else, and you go into your shell for a while – presenteeism is an invisible curse. If these conflicts continue, your physical health can also start to suffer and before you know it the stresses can cause longer-lasting damage.

If we remove the taboo around talking about how we are feeling, many of these issues would be nipped in the bud. Companies are happy to give people gym memberships to look after their physical health, why can’t they equally offer occasional therapy sessions to top up their reserves of mental strength?

So much money is invested into training people how to do the right things and take the correct decisions, but if they are not in a fit emotional state to do so, they will inevitably make the wrong calls. A slippery slope of emotional detachment starts, and people will only ask for help when they are broken. Actually, they probably won’t even ask for help, things will finally be so bad that others will take notice.

When you don’t want to be at work, for whatever reason, even reaching 70% of your potential can seem like a mammoth task.

It isn’t such a hard thing to manage. A boss simply has to care about what is happening with their people, listen to their concerns and get to the bottom of how they feel. Being content with an “I’m fine” is not enough – addressing some issues requires a heartfelt chat over a coffee. If managers can’t make the time for their people on a regular basis, the emotional distance between them will grow, and when a difficult situation comes along, the managers won’t know how to handle it.

Improving discretionary effort is what makes a good business into a great business. When everyone around you is giving their all, it makes you want to raise your game as well. It is true that training can help, it is true that a positive company culture makes a difference, but it is also true that unless a business supports the mental wellbeing of their people, there will always be a gap between how they are performing and how they could perform.

How much would it cost to make the emotional wellbeing of your people more of a priority? It isn’t a “nice to have” on the strategy list. It is what might make or break your business when the hard times come along.

first published 2016

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