How to Tap Into Employee Discretionary Energy

a woman depicted doing different duties at work
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Discretionary energy is the energy that an employee chooses to exert in service to coworkers or customers at work—or not. An employer pays for the fundamental tasks that he hires an employee to perform. The employee exerts the amount of energy necessary to perform the basic requirements of his or her job description.

Discretionary energy is the get-up-and-go that the employee is willing to contribute beyond the basic requirements of the job. Employees choose how much discretionary energy to exert on your behalf in the workplace.

The employee's willingness to perform above and beyond the basic requirements of the job is a reflection of the employee's willingness to engage his or her discretionary energy.

Does tapping into employee discretionary energy sound like a positive workplace contribution? It is. Discretionary energy can help you set your workplace on fire with employee performance and excitement.  As an employer, your goal is to tap into as much of it as possible. It is the oil that keeps the motor of a successful organization running.

Think of employee discretionary energy as a powerful performance enhancer. Successful managers understand the power of discretionary energy and take conscious action to tap into it at work. Managers draw forth and enable the employee to contribute their discretionary energy by creating a work environment that empowers and enables employees to choose to perform.

Studies at a number of organizations, including leading academic institutions, have shown a clear relationship between high levels of employee engagement—colloquially defined as the willingness and ability to go the extra mile—and improved financial and operational results. But findings from our 2012 Global Workforce Study show that the steps organizations have taken to improve engagement are beginning to fall short.

The Work Environment That Promotes Discretionary Energy

So, what's an organization to do to encourage the kind of employee engagement that achieves these results? The work environment that encourages employee discretionary energy contribution emphasizes such components as:

  • Clear goals and performance expectations
  • Rewards and recognition for accomplishment
  • Ongoing feedback
  • A commitment to communication
  • Frequent performance coaching
  • Management attention and support
  • Employee satisfaction
  • Employee motivation
  • Employee development opportunities (not just classes)

Employee Discretionary Energy in Action

As an example of discretionary energy in action, Mary serves customers in a retail store. She escorts customers to a dressing room in which the customer tries on clothing. When the customer is finished, Mary brings the customer back to the floor while offering any additional assistance the customer needs. 

If the customer decides to purchase an item, Mary either takes her to the cashier or rings up the purchase herself. She thanks the customer for her purchase and tells her she hopes that the customer will come back soon. Mary puts the clothes away that the customer didn't purchase. 

All of this is Mary's basic job, what Mary's employer hired her to do. This is how Mary earns her paycheck each week. Is it all the employer wants her to do? Not really. The employer hopes to obtain much more from each employee.

Contributed Discretionary Energy

An employee who is empowered, happy, and committed to her work takes the service one step further. She uses her discretionary energy to better serve the customer and to improve her employer's sales.

Mary, using her discretionary energy, asks the customer, while she's still in the dressing room, whether she can bring her an item that isn't working in another size or color. She escorts the customer to the floor and suggests additional items, which might work well for the customer, based on what the customer appears to have liked already.

Mary also suggests an item or two that she thinks might work well for the customer, even if they're not similar to what the customer has already tried on. Mary can do this because she knows the inventory very well and has observed many customers purchase items over time. She knows what might look good on the current customer from experience.

After the customer makes her purchase, Mary remembers to give her a coupon for an upcoming sale. She walks the customer to the store entry, thanks her for the purchase, and tells her that she can ask for Mary anytime she returns to the store. Mary understands that customers are more likely to return if they have a friend from whom they know they'll receive excellent service.

Enable More Use of Employee Discretionary Energy

You can't pay people enough to remember to go the extra mile, but you can produce a work environment in which your employees will choose to exert that discretionary energy themselves. Mary's employer-provided many of the factors recommended above to create a workplace in which employees like Mary provided way more than the basic job description described.

From an employer's point of view, the more employee discretionary energy that you can tap, the better the potential for well-served customers. You also increase your potential for happy employees. A happy employee is positively interacting with customers and coworkers and experiencing all of the work benefits that accrue as a result of these positive interactions.