The Power of Discretionary Engagement

The power of an employee’s discretionary engagement cannot be emphasized enough. It is the single most powerful ingredient a company can harness for success and competitive advantage in the marketplace. But what is “discretionary engagement” exactly? It is subtle, difficult to measure, and critical to achieving beyond ordinary results. Here is one story that illustrates just how elusive and yet impactful this ingredient can be.

It’s a Sunday morning and Karen is on her way to the airport, traveling to Texas for a week of leadership training for her new employer. She’s talking to a former colleague along the way and as she approaches the airport, she mentions how nice it is that she can park onsite at the airport with this new employer with no guilt or explanation. The travel policy is quite clear and employees are completely empowered to park wherever they prefer when traveling on business for the company. She is feeling highly valued and cared for as an employee.

Nine months earlier…
Karen is on her way to the airport, traveling on business for her previous employer. As a senior consultant, she is asked to travel extensively for the company and she is one of the highest revenue generators, directly facing the end clients each day. Karen has a family that she leaves each time she travels but has never complained as she is committed to her company’s success and travel is a part of that.

Earlier that week, Karen received a memo from her boss. In it, he made an indirect request to park off site at the airport when traveling on company business. This was not a direct mandate but an inferred directive…i.e. “if you can”, “when you’re not pressed for time”, etc. The rationale for the request was in service of being a good steward of the business.

This business is highly profitable and clients are charged back full T&E, typically loaded up by at least 25%.

Karen’s perception of the memo was a feeling of hypocrisy. Overcharge the clients and then ask your employees that are traveling on their own time and missing their families to park off site to save the company a few dollars. Ask your key employees to spend more of their time or hassle/discomfort so that the boss can personally earn a few more dollars of profit.

Due to the unclear messaging and the indirect request, Karen was left to use her own personal judgment. She and most of her peers chose to continue parking onsite at the airport, following their personal values of time.

Impact:
Karen felt de-valued, unappreciated, and personally conflicted because she wants to be a good employee and good steward of the business, but she also wants to get in and out of the airport as quickly as possible to get home to her family. She and her peers spent time talking about the situation, judging the leader, judging the company, and ultimately questioning their value to the company. All of this was happening to the employees that deliver the highest revenue generation to the business.
Several months later, following other similar actions by the company and continued magnification on things like parking, Karen’s questioning of her value and contribution to the business intensified and she started looking for other opportunities and ultimately left the company.

Back to Today:
Karen is flourishing as a leader, highly valued by not only her direct reports in a short time, but also quickly being valued as the right hand to one of the most senior directors of her current employer, a fortune 500 company. She is engaged more than ever before in her life, learning, stretching and delivering exceptional value to her team and her company. She also considers parking off site at the airport when not pressed for time because she feels invested in her company and truly wants to be that good steward.

Truth in Leadership:
This is the truth that leaders sometimes deny…demonstration of value to your key players must be on their terms, not yours. Greed and personal interests always leak through to employees. Actions speak louder than any words, stories, or attempts at persuasion. If you want the success that can only be experienced through the full power of engagement, including discretionary engagement, you must demonstrate appreciation and acknowledge value through all of your actions, large and small.

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