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Business Tips: Brain Engagement and Discretionary Effort

by Karla Brandau, CSP

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 discretionary effort.

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 integrity.
  • 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 customers.

They seldom visit La La Land.

The Workplace Power Institute helps organizations be more competitive in the global marketplace by removing blocks to organizational productivity and improving collaboration.

For program information and an invitation to Karla Brandau, CEO, to speak at your next event or training workshop, call 770-923-0883 or send an email to



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