Discretionary Effort: A Wake-Up Call

Why are extra-credit projects being treated as requirement? Let’s locate missing brownie points while enjoying a hard-working chocolate treat and ponder how to keep discretionary efforts from being discounted, mislabeled and under-appreciated ever again.


With the ubiquity of work-like-an-owner slogans, companies appear desperate for donated work, but can they manage those gifts when received? Discretionary effort, over-and-above job requirements generously gifted, is dangerous territory becoming potential demotivation without transparent expectations and rewards. Further, programs become disastrous without tools for assessing ebb and flow of discretionary efforts as employee’s interest in extra assignments vacillates. If premature turnover of A+ performers is a pattern, mismanagement of elective contribution may be a culprit.

While obvious to outside observers, those enmeshed in company culture are less aware of inconsistent expectations and discretionary efforts going unrewarded.

Locate Missing Recognition

Performance evaluations offer insight into measurement of extra-credit in the culture at large. Many supervisors I’ve coached recalibrate expectations based upon existing performance for both high and low performers, instead of using static criteria, which robs top performers of accolades. Managers reviewing their associates as all comparable in skill should sound alarms at head office. I’ve observed performance evaluations become semi-fictional accounts to avoid conflict or coaching well-liked under-performers while simultaneously sidestepping acknowledgment of star-performers making peers, and perhaps the supervisor, appear mediocre by comparison. Counterintuitive to claims, protection of under-performers is an unintentional priority above promoting and recognizing the efforts of over-achievers.

Without rigorous accountability, management overlooks and therefore discourages discretionary effort.


First, organizations need systems of expectation and reward so mutual understanding of job description directives versus extra-credit evaluated reasonably. Further, check-and-balance, on management’s assessments from neutral evaluators helps counterweight biases fostering an environment of fairness, which not everyone will enjoy, as merit is not celebrated by those not exhibiting the behavior. Finally, addressing gaps in understanding improves communication but more can be done to safeguard fairness.

Tips For Over-Achievers:

Regardless of company slogans or programs, track your projects and results with excruciating detail because you’ll need the back-up. Discretionary assignments must be specific, measurable and documented.

While cluelessness on your manager’s part is probably unconscious, you have no obligation to play along establishing misrepresentation of value as acceptable business practice.

  • Challenge assessments unsatisfactorily recognizing value by being prepared, unemotional and respectful. Tactfully emphasize omitted projects and do not accept excuses such as, you are far more talented than the person in the role before you so we have higher expectations. Allow supervisors to acknowledge any missteps; however, if evaluations continue to disregard extra effort, find a better organization.
  • Expect jealousy. Find the most senior level or executive champion possible through a mentoring program or your own networking efforts because you’ll need an influential force providing leverage if/when your sparkle threatens status quo.
  • Carefully consider working for organizations lacking job descriptions offering coolness as company value instead. Vague standards leave biases of leadership to run unchecked, dictating discretionary effort as expected as everyone supposedly works-like-an-owner or similar propaganda. Furthermore, employment with companies supercharged on elitist values as a way to manipulate free hours of work should be negotiated at major salary premiums or pass because you see through the antics.

All attempts to manipulate employees to donate hours or ideas without compensation should provoke question. Keep in mind; if your ideas are indeed amazing, a better organization will compensate you for them.

Tips For Management:

A quick way to demotivate A players providing discretionary value is pretending extra work is mandatory when everyone can see others not contributing at a similar level. Avoid missteps by remaining focused on core requirements for each role and seek outside perspective to uncover biases toward protecting status quo at expense of over-achievers.

Tips for managing discretionary contributors

Consider eliminating hollow slogans positioning discretionary effort as expected.

  • Create a proper system for above and beyond assignments. Publicly communicate optional duties deemed worthy, contributing to specific needs of the organization.
  • Assign extra-credit to Associates showing interest instead of wasting time cajoling the disinterested.
  • Guard against discretionary efforts inadvertently becoming compulsory.
  • Coach participants ensuring core responsibilities stay central focus and passion projects secondary.
  • Refrain from assigning projects that are responsibilities of an under-performing manager or team. Shirking coaching requirements exacerbates problems.

How to manage changes in contribution:

Another pitfall of unclear position requirements versus optional contribution is management failing to modify expectation when associate’s elective efforts change. Correspondingly, adjustments should prompt supervisors to reconsider assumptions and recalibrate mindsets ensuring fairness maintained. For example, whether an employee wants to train for a marathon, takes night classes or requires more family time, shifts in gifted effort should not have negative consequences as long as core job responsibility sustained. Shift in employee behavior will uncover hidden attitudes of management, matters further complicated along gender lines with women dubious about fair evaluation to begin with.

Correctly managing ebb and flow of donated projects will ensure employees continue offering discretionary contribution in the future instead of leaving the organization due to mismanagement.

Manage The Shift:

  1. For employees that were once high extra curricular contributors that have decided not to take part in optional projects, the shift from high engagement to what appears like minimums requires management to evaluate performance with logic versus emotion.
  • Maintaining role requirements without penalty for adjustments in gifted contribution must not detract from performance evaluation. Multiple opinions and neutral observers ensure fairness is maintained.
  • Emotional connections to passion projects, meaningful but not crucial to success of team, must be set aside. Would you have similar expectations for new employees?
  • Accept things have changed and adapt accordingly. Correct misperceptions when you hear comments such as, “Carol is not the same since the baby”.

2. Once high-level discretionary contributors dipping below minimum standards for job requirement will also challenge coaching skills. The shock of change sometimes delays prompt feedback as managers hope behavior an anomaly. Should leeway be granted and for how long? Avoidance, a popular method, only exacerbates issues and creates long-term credibility issues with the team.

Organizations wishing to collect on their employee’s good will donations must courageously consider the gap between how they imagine extra-credit is managed and the reality. Scrubbing the culture of hidden manipulation and bias is a great place to start. For employees, now that your personal brownie points have been located, never let them be taken for granted again.

Please share your ideas and wisdom for successfully managing discretionary effort and rewarding and retaining top performers.

Recipe for Brownie Points

Disclaimer: The story and recipe above should not be considered advice as the readers and users of Chocolate Cake Mondays are not clients and therefore CCM is not liable for reader’s reliance on the information herein.

Published by HIRED GUN.