Get the Edge with Discretionary Effort

It might not be the glitziest of terms, but discretionary effort is one of the most effective ways to accelerate your career. It basically means going the extra mile by outperforming your job description. And it’s one of the quickest ways to get your boss to notice you.

As co-author of ‘How To Earn The Gift Of Discretionary Effort’, Karla Brandau, puts it: ‘The application of discretionary effort principles, engages the intellect, heart and soul of employees and moves them from minimal effort to amazing contributions. It results in superior customer service, innovation and competitive edge.’

You’ll notice that Karla is speaking as if to a boss or manager. Most of the research and literature is focussed on helping employers extract discretionary effort from employees. It seems far rarer for employees to actively take individual responsibility for going above and beyond their pay grade. This, in itself, is another reason why discretionary effort is going to make you shine.

Here are 5 tips to make it part of your daily working life:



This isn’t about trying to beat Dan or Jessica with your daily stats but competing against yourself, in order to do a tiny bit better every day. As coach and seven-figure entrepreneur Suzy Ashworth states in this five-minute podcast, ‘…healthy competition with yourself is a judgement-free zone. It’s just really objectively getting very intentional with your commitment to yourself.’

Suzy suggests asking yourself what 1% better tomorrow would look like. By doing this every day, you continuously push yourself into the discretionary effort zone. Just think, in 70 days you could be 100% better than you are now, without having to make any massive changes!


Give your discomfort a new name

Discretionary effort isn’t just something that varies by person, but by task too. Most people try harder when they’re working on tasks they enjoy and find fulfilling, and often disengage when they perceive a task as uncomfortable or difficult.

The trick is to recognise that you’re in ‘learning mode’, and accept that it’s ok to find new or challenging things hard. Especially in the early days of your career, no one expects you to dazzle in every single area anyway.

By reframing tricky work tasks as learning opportunities, you’re far likelier to engage with them proactively. Bosses love a keen learner! Plus, instead of wanting to give up, or do the bare minimum, you’ll find you’re automatically driven to complete them to a higher standard.


Make work buddies

The US military has studied teamwork for over 50 years. Gerald Goodwin from its Research Institute for Behavioural and Social Sciences believes that how well people work together may be more important than how well they work on tasks. ‘The secret sauce comes from teamwork,’ he says.

It makes sense; the more connected you feel to those you work with, the harder you will try for all of your sakes. Kindness towards your fellow workers also comes with positive physiological side effects. Studies have shown it can activate the release of dopamine, lower blood pressure and reduce stress – all of which contribute to higher-level functioning and make going the extra mile that little bit easier.

For more tips on self-care take a look at our article on self-care in isolation.


Know yourself

It makes sense to figure out how to motivate yourself, because if you’re not motivated at work, you’re not going to be applying discretionary effort.

Mark Murphy is a leadership expert and his research has discovered five main sources of workplace motivation: achievement, power, affiliation, security, and adventure. (You can take his test to discover what motivates you here.)

For example, if your primary motivator is affiliation, then teamwork, harmonious relationships and personal interaction will keep you motivated. Knowing this could explain why you might have struggled with the WFH culture of the pandemic. It also provides a solution; you need more affiliation, which you could easily incorporate by using face-to-face communication such as Zoom or FaceTime, instead of texts or emails.



Think back to the last time you had to call a bank or utility company, only to be told after half an hour’s wait that they couldn’t help you and seemingly had very little interest in assisting you at all. Remember that sense of frustration and powerlessness?

Don’t let your customers – be they consumers or internal co-workers – feel the same. It doesn’t matter whether you’re working in a call centre, stacking supermarket shelves or inputting data, the people who approach you for help are doing so because your assistance matters to them. Even if you can’t directly practically help them, there is always something you can do to make them feel that they matter.

Maya Angelou said it best:

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

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