What Is Discretionary Effort? (+How to Encourage It)

Lee Waters
Posted by Lee Waters
Discretionary Effort? (+How to Encourage It)

Every leader wants to have a hard-working team. One that goes above and beyond basic performance expectations by putting in some discretionary effort each day. But discretionary effort isn’t something that you can just compel employees to give.

What is discretionary effort? How does it add up over time to equal success for your team? Most importantly, what can you do to encourage call center staff or other employees to go that extra mile?

What Is Discretionary Effort?

Discretionary effort is the term for the level of work or commitment that an employee could give that goes above and beyond the minimum level of effort necessary for their job function.

Employees may engage in a wide variety of behaviors when they’re exercising discretionary effort—it isn’t just that they work harder or for longer hours. C2Perform customers have reported a variety of ways that their own teams have exercised discretionary effort, such as:

  • Showing up to work early
  • Eagerly engaging in learning programs or sharpening their skills outside of work hours
  • Volunteering to cover extra shifts or help with new tasks
  • Mentoring their peers to improve performance across the team
  • Taking fewer sick days
  • Providing positive feedback and suggestions to help improve the work environment

The Difference between Employees Who Do and Don’t Exercise Discretionary Effort

Here’s a quick story about two employees working for a company’s call center—let’s call them Rob and Steve. Rob goes the extra mile whenever possible, staying on the line with customers for longer when possible, reporting to work early, eagerly memorizing new call scripts when they’re released, and actively participating in meetings to give suggestions and feedback. In short, he’s a highly-engaged employee.

Meanwhile, Steve is a perfectly competent employee. He shows up on time, completes tasks at a perfectly acceptable (even rapid) pace, and clocks out when the day is done. He doesn’t really speak up much during meetings unless there’s something that really concerns him or he is addressed directly. He fulfills every process goal and provides satisfactory results, but doesn’t really excel. He could be called either a somewhat-engaged or mildly disengaged employee.

In the course of a week, Rob and Steve achieve:

Performance/Process Metric

Rob’s Results

Steve’s Results

Average Calls Per Day



Total Upsells



Average Handle Time (AHT)

8 minutes

4 minutes

Net Promoter Score



Transfer Rate



Based on these metrics, it may look like Steve is working through more customers and being more productive. However, he isn’t spending as much time with each one—leading to fewer overall service upsells, a lower successful call resolution rate, and less overall customer satisfaction (though not outright dissatisfaction).

Also, Steve’s transferring calls to other departments or to a higher-up in the organization far more frequently than Rob does—around 29 a day compared to Rob’s 2 or 3 a day. This means that team leaders have to spend far more time resolving any issues that Steve’s customers have than they do Rob’s. This potentially impacts their own productivity.

While Rob’s actual volume of calls per day may be lower than Steve’s, he’s producing better results with less work made for other departments and management. The extra time he spends with each customer helps him understand their issues and offer them solutions they want—making for happier customers who are more likely to stay with the company or even make an immediate request for a specific service recommended by Rob.

How to Encourage Discretionary Effort

So, what can you do to turn the “Steves” in your organization into “Robs” that help build long-term success by going the extra mile with every shift, customer interaction, and meeting they’re part of? Here are a few ideas to help you get started:

1: Start by Focusing on Employee Engagement

If employees aren’t enthusiastic about their work, then it’s really unlikely that they’ll go the extra mile to drive results. Driving employee engagement is crucial for getting your team to exercise discretionary effort and to keep making that effort.

There are innumerable ways to drive employee engagement, such as:

  • Providing recognition for extraordinary effort and results. For example, if Rob was on your team and getting 3x the upsells of others, taking the time to congratulate him on that could help keep him motivated to stay the course.
  • Starting coaching sessions with a positive. When providing guidance during a one-on-one session, try to start with a positive comment first. For example, you could congratulate Steve for working through so many contacts in a day, even though you plan to work with him on spending more time on each contact to achieve a higher upsell ratio.
  • Connecting work with purpose. Employees need to know that their work matters and why it matters to remain engaged in the long term. As noted by Forbes, “Engaged employees are doing meaningful work and have a clear understanding of how they contribute to the company’s mission, purpose and strategic objectives.” When your team knows why their work matters and how it impacts others, they’ll have an easier time staying motivated and exercising that discretionary effort that will help everyone meet their goals.

These are just a few basic ideas to help improve employee engagement to encourage discretionary effort.

2: Collect and Act on Employee Feedback

A big part of getting employees to take initiative and do more is giving them a feeling of empowerment that their opinions matter. An easy way to do this is to actively ask for—and then act on—employee feedback about the workplace.

For example, say that, during a meeting, Rob notes that a lot of the customers he talks to are expressing frustration with the automated voice system the company uses to route incoming calls to appropriate service departments. You could use that feedback as the basis for making changes to that system that either eliminate redundant steps, improve the rate at which callers are put through to the right department, or even change solutions entirely to improve functionality.

By acting on this kind of feedback, you can keep Rob encouraged to provide such insight again in the future. You could also congratulate him on how his feedback helped improve the customer experience—encouraging him and others to provide more feedback as they identify such issues.

3: Examine and Optimize Your Onboarding Process

Do your new hires know what the most important metrics in your call center are? What about their job expectations, how the tools they’re supposed to use work, and the company’s mission?

To help get employees engaged and encourage them to make extra effort on the job, it’s important to ensure that they’re correctly situated from day one. Optimizing your new hire onboarding process can help ensure that employees know what’s expected of them and what they can do to earn bonuses and kudos from their managers.

For example, let’s say you change your onboarding process to emphasize training to help solve customer needs—even at the expense of speed of customer interactions. This is the kind of onboarding focus that can help to produce an employee like Rob—one who focuses on trying to resolve problems with customers thoroughly by understanding their issues and doing their best to help at every turn.

Meanwhile, Steve’s onboarding process and initial training emphasized speed of interaction. He was given the goal of resolving or rerouting each call as quickly as possible to help prevent long hold times for customers calling the contact center. In his own way, he’s doing his best to meet the expectations laid out for him. However, the expectations set during onboarding led to lower upsell ratios and less customer enthusiasm. Eventually, the lack of progress towards other goals may frustrate Steve and lead to him becoming more disengaged with his work.

4: Creating Advancement Opportunities

“Where do you see yourself in five years?” It’s a pretty standard interview question. One that asks the employee to consider their career path with your organization. However, it isn’t just the interviewers that ask the employees this question—eventually, the employee will start to ask where their career is going and where they want to be.

If an employee doesn’t see any opportunity for advancement, then they aren’t likely to put in the extra work needed to stand out.

For example, say that Steve has been with the company for three years—a fairly long time for a contact center agent in a high-turnover industry. In all that time, there’s never been a hint of getting promoted to supervisor or any other role in the organization. How likely is it that he’ll go out of his way to stand out for opportunities that he doesn’t think exist?

However, you introduce a new mentorship program—one where more experienced or higher-performing contact center agents start advising new hires with an eventual goal to raise someone to a permanent trainer position or to be a new team lead. On hearing about this opportunity, Steve starts working a bit harder to qualify for the program as a mentor—spending more time on each call and dedicating some time for learning new skills. His numbers improve and, when he starts mentoring a new hire, the new hire produces satisfactory results in a shorter timeframe than is typical for your organization before the program.

These are just a few ways to encourage discretionary effort from your team. Need help engaging employees, tracking performance, and helping them improve every day? Reach out to C2Perform to get started!

Topics: strategies for employee engagement, employee engagement ideas

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