Discretionary Energy: Is It Being Used?

A short one to start the New Year……

A couple of weeks ago I was watching a Fareed Zakaria special where he interviewed Paul O’Neil (former United States Secretary of the Treasury and former CEO of Alcoa) on the subject of “tough decisions”.  In the interview, I heard for the first time the phrase discretionary energy used to describe the extra effort that employees have available that they may (or may not)  give to their employer – a concept that I find very interesting.  A Google search revealed a decent amount of material on the subject.

Most definitions of discretionary energy suggest that its the energy an employee provides when going above and beyond the call of duty to complete an assignment.  With this definition, a very simple (but wrong) approach would be for a company to identify what percentage of its employees work over 40 hours (for example) and use that as an indicator of discretionary energy in use.  A classic case of mistaking correlation for causation.  However, there is a very important ingredient of discretionary energy – an employee should make the decision to bring this energy to the table on their own because they want too.  If it is forced, coerced or explicitly asked for by the employer, it is no longer discretionary energy

For example, if you ask your employees to stay late to complete a task and they do so, as positive as this may be (after all you wouldn’t want them to say no would you), they did not use their discretionary energy.  On the other hand, if they realize a task needs to be completed and on their own decide to stay for a couple of hours to get the item completed instead of having it done the following day, then discretionary energy is at work.  This is a subtle yet important difference as as most employers mistake the fact that employees heed instruction to extend themselves as show of commitment to the cause.  I am not certain that is truly the case (more to come on that) and are then surprised when employees leave and complain of “long working hours”.

If you are looking for a “happiness indicator” or a “level of commitment measure” for the employees in your team or organization, something to look at would be the amount of discretionary energy being used in the workplace.  Intrinsic motivation begets discretionary energy.  How often are your employees going above and beyond on their own?  When people stay late or work on the weekend is it because you asked them to or because they want to ensure that something is completed on time?  How often does your team come up with ideas of improvement on their own?  What new frameworks, approaches, solutions and patterns are being created or designed to solve problems that exist?  Does your customer service representatives take the time to understand people calling with complaints?  If this is non-existent or extremely low, you are not tapping into the potential of your greatest asset – your people and that is extremely unfortunate!

On the other hand, as an employee, take a look at how much discretionary energy you give to your job.  If you find yourself dreading work, excitedly looking for the end of they day and completely switching off when you leave the office, it would seem to me that you are not using it all.  If that’s the case, you may need to start looking for something new and different (maybe somewhere else).  It is, after all, a New Year, so why not start now?  Find a place to put your discretionary energy to use!

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About Ebenezer

culture hack. contrarian. change artiste. speaker. writer. silo-connector. entrepreneur. totally human. ff at your own risk. :-)
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