Brain Engagement and Discretionary Effort
If the organization provides safety and security for employees, then
employees will provide the organization with their brawn. But what about
the brain? That is a different issue.
Money buys employees’ brawn: at least you can see them at their desk
by 8:00 a.m. and see them leave at 5:00 p.m. You observe them walking
the halls with papers in hand, working at their computers, talking on
the telephone, and in other ways physically doing their jobs. They
appear to be working hard and the employer pays for the fundamental
tasks the employee was hired to do. But, is the employee’s brain
engaged? Is he satisfied with his current level of production and on
autopilot? Is she just going through the motions to get a paycheck?
In production jobs where people are hired for their brawn, brain
engagement is not a major issue. However, it is a different story for
people with information jobs. People who are paid to think need reasons
to keep their brain engaged and keep it from wandering into La-La Land:
thinking about the weekend, plotting how to get even with the person in
the next cubicle, or surfing the Internet for wakeboards. Brain
engagement of employees is a clear leadership challenge.
The brain has many levels of intellectual and emotional involvement
and employees decide on an hourly basis how much of their brain they
will share at work, how much creativity they will give to solving
problems, and how much they will flex to get along with co-workers.
The amount of brain effort they choose to give is called
Some employees engage their brains only enough to do their jobs just
to the level so they won’t get fired. Little, if any, discretionary
effort comes from these employees and they may never choose to change
their engagement preference. However, if an organization increases the
invitation to be engaged, most employees will respond in a positive way.
To better engage employees, organizations can employ a variety of
methods such as offering monetary rewards, giving opportunities for
personal development and education, recognizing employees for
outstanding accomplishments and achievements, extending the leadership
of a team assigned to a plumb project, etc.
The ideas for engagement are numerous and once the organization has
matched their method with the employee, the level of an employee's
intellectual engagement and the amount of discretionary effort they
choose to give will increase.
Discretionary effort equates with energy at work. There is a
difference in the level of effort and energy one is capable of bringing
to an activity or a task, and the effort required only to get by or make
do, which requires little discretionary effort. It is the difference
between the minimum acceptable versus the maximum level of energy and
discretionary effort an individual is capable of giving and is related
to the integrity and trust between an employee and the organization.
This places the level of employee engagement and discretionary effort
squarely on the shoulders of leadership. To engage your employees and
earn discretionary effort, use this checklist:
- Give your employees stimulating tasks. This gives them
positive expectation and a sense of excitement to come to work. It
engages their creativity, improves their brain activity and
increases the pleasure of working.
Assign employees to find answers to tough problems. This honors them
by showing you believe in them and their abilities. Human nature
will make them knuckle-down and bring you solutions.
- Make employees accountable with deadlines and midpoints.
Just like a teenager secretly appreciates the enforcement of rules,
deep inside people feel good when they meet deadlines with
- Explain the organizational vision and mission and ask
them if they can align personally with the objectives and goals.
Just like in a sales process, you can uncover and overcome their
objections to business strategy and in the process and discussions,
make them a more loyal employee.
- Take note of their completed tasks in their performance
review and see if their completed responsibilities support the goals
and objectives of the department. This audit will help you determine
if they have inadvertently veered off target.
- Provide team building activities and relationship
training so employees can intelligently solve problems, resolve
minor conflicts and understand how to collaborate.
- Reward them and recognize them for their contributions.
Rewards and recognition give employees a sense of self-esteem and
individual pride increases when they are thanked for their
contributions in front of their peers.
- Teach managers how to be relevant to the employees.
Relevance means you matter. Because some managers underperform, they
do not matter to the employee and worse yet, get in the way of
employees performing at high levels.
The fundamental building block to effective work production and
customer satisfaction is employees who are engaged and excited about
their jobs. Their brains are fully engaged and they willingly give
discretionary effort. Their energy is directed toward task completion,
solving complex problems in innovative ways, and ensuring happy
They seldom visit La La Land.