Ideas from our October Leadership Seminar



Discretionary Effort

Traditionally in the past many organisations have managed the performance of their employees by using strategies which rely on negative reinforcement. These strategies motivate staff to do only enough to avoid getting themselves into trouble. Tammy Erickson argues however that ‘your success as a leader hinges on your ability to entice people – to want to go the extra mile for your business.’


This ‘extra mile’ is described by many including Woods and Coomber as showing ‘Discretionary Effort’ which was defined by Andy Buck as ‘the level of effort people could give if they wanted to, but above and beyond the minimum required.’ This is demonstrated in the diagram below:


So, how do we as leaders create a culture where employees want to go the extra mile. How is discretionary effort generated? Traditional ‘push’ management approaches such as directives, performance management and power-based approaches may not necessarily achieve the desired outcomes. Now we need to be employing more ‘pull’ style approaches in order to encourage our staff to become more creative and more enthusiastic in order to face the challenges they face with greater focus and energy.
We need then to consider our leadership style. Are the management strategies we use based on ‘push’ or ‘pull’ techniques? Is your style likely to engage your employees and make them want to do more?


Erickson argues that there are three main characteristics which a leader should demonstrate if they are to generate this level of discretionary effort. The first of these is to be interesting and intriguing. It is often stated that people buy into a person before they buy into their vision. A leader needs to capture the imagination of their employees and create a level of excitement about what they want to achieve. Secondly the leader should be open to a wide range of possible ideas and methods showing a tolerance of ambiguity. There is often more than one way of achieving desired outcomes and leaders should be respectful of divergent methods and points of view. Finally the leader needs to be authentic demonstrating a level of complete credibility. They need to be reliable and able to fulfil commitments.


In a school environment there are a number of strategies we can use in order to achieve this high level of engagement that we are looking for. All employees need to fully understand the role that they hold in the overall running of the school. It has been often remarked on that the biggest cause of anxiety in any work place is created by the employee not being aware of their role and the expectations associated with it. In addition we should provide an equal amount of challenge and support while always promoting a culture of high expectation. Inspiring leaders should be able to articulate a vision with depth and clarity while also recognising the work of others through reward, autonomy and trust.


If school leaders can create a culture and climate which has this element of discretionary effort embedded within it, then the outcomes should lead to success.