Motivation Theories and Discretionary Effort of Employees

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Increasing employee engagement in order to make companies more efficient and adaptive has become a real concern for organizations. Usually well-motivated staffs understand the business culture and its motif, which results in a mutually beneficial relationship. With the business recession, lean organizations have become in vogue and therefore, committed employees who go an extra mile to help the organization are more valued and resourceful, and therefore, desirable by companies. So, how can organizations engage the employees? The answers lie in cultivating the discretionary effort of the employees.

Understanding how employee productivity improves, and still keeping them satisfied is a problem has been the agenda of the human resources (HR) department across many organizations. Many believe that human beings are capable of more than what they usually expend. Usually it is not money, which can unlock the true potential in employees; rather, it is the excitement to solve an insoluble problem can push the human brain to maximum. Seldom, men themselves are aware that they are capable of doing much better than what they were presently doing. The question that arises is how this hidden and often unknown potential can be triggered. The popular belief in HR is that the efforts, which need to be unlocked, are the ‘discretionary effort’ of the employees. Discretionary effort is the difference in the effort that one is capable of to the effort that is actually required to complete a task. It is believed that “Mobilizing that discretionary effort is the key to increasing productivity, and to do that managers must appeal to employees’ self-interest” (Posposil 1994, p. 6). Therefore, it is important for organizations to unravel measures of unlocking this latent potential in employees.

Applying Motivation Theories

“How can I motivate my workers?” is a recurring question that organizations, managers, and behavioral scientists ask day in and out. The assumption behind such a question is that a simple prescription to this problem is available based on the use of general motivational theories. Simplistic prescriptions offered based on motivation theories are often misleading, as the theories are seldom simple.

According to Pinder (1977) many of the motivational theories are limited in predictive validity. He states: “Many suffer from basic problems in their assumptions concerning the nature of people; one or two make predictions which are valid in the short run; all are still extremely vulnerable to the influence of individual differences, the nature of which are still being investigates; several make awkward, contradictory predictions which still have not been adequately reconciled.” (Pinder 1977, pp. 385-6) Therefore Pinder (1977) believes that most of the theories (Hygiene theory, Need hierarchy theory, VIE, etc.) have some shortcomings and are not suitable for application in real situations. Nevertheless, these theories, he states, are not tools or rule of thumbs that can be applied in organizational settings without any modifications. Therefore, in order to apply the motivational theories it is important apply the theories only after absorbing the real situation and not considering the theories to be prescriptions. Given this background of applicability of motivation theories, it is important to understand how motivation theories are expected to unlock the hidden employee potential.

The motivation theories identify what can keep employees satisfied, but they also state what can push them to work harder.

Maslow in his hierarchy of needs theory hypothesized that within every individual there are five predominant needs that are ordered in hierarchy. These needs are physiological, safety, social, esteem, and self-actualization. The self-actualization need drives people to become what one is capable of becoming. This factor motivates individuals to aim for further growth, achievement, self-fulfillment, etc. According to Maslow, as the lower order needs are satisfied, people aim for their higher needs. So if an organization has to motivate employee, the must aim at fulfillment of the lower order needs first, and then provide them higher order needs in order to drive their growth potential.

Analyzing the motivational theories, we may understand what the theories express in terms of motivating an employee to work harder. In hygiene theory, Herzberg (1974) differentiates between motivating and hygiene factors. The former are the motivational factors that drives employees work further, and keeps them satisfied, while the latter helps in stopping them getting dissatisfied.

According to Herzberg, “job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction are produced by different work factors” (1974, p. 18). Consequently, the theory implies that the factors which creates the drive to work further wholeheartedly is produced by a different set of factors and are not related to the environment or perks or salary related to the job. Rather, it is dependent on the fetors like work itself, achievement, recognition for achieve. In other words, these are intrinsic factors.

Herzberg believes that affecting of the hygiene factors can disrupt work altogether, however, non-presence of motivation factors will not stop work, but motivational factors will help in increase the satisfaction of employees and through increased satisfaction they will be eager to put in greater effort at work. Herzberg states, “Managements that are not prepared to provide whatever motivators are possible in the job are not prepared to meet the challenge of managing adults.” (1974, p. 29) Therefore, the motivators can help organizations to push to work further or harder and gain higher productivity. Herzberg insists that if the employees are not presented with enriched job, then they will fail to be motivated and will leave the organization psychologically. Evidently, job enrichment, is a probable method of unlocking the discretionary effort of the employees that can increase their productivity.

Path goal theory (1986) shows that leadership behavior can affect the subordinate attitude in three ways – satisfaction of the subordinates, acceptance of the leader by the subordinate, and subordinates believe that higher effort will lead to effective performance and consequently lead to reward. The theory emphasizes that employee performance and intention to work relates to the leadership style. Therefore, according to this theory, participative leadership style is the key to enumerating the hidden potential in employees. According to this theory, actually the leader’s behavior actually motivates the employees to push themselves further to work harder.

Thus, plethora of motivational theories have aimed at providing a set of rules to organizations. However, Pinder (1977) argues that none of these motivation theories is adequately equipped to answer the problems of the organizations, for a simple reason, that organizations are not static. However, motivating employees is the right path, as higher level of motivation will lead to higher productivity (Locke & Latham 1990). Many other scholars have described that there is a close relationship between employee motivation, which they correlate with employee engagement, and higher job involvement, which leads to higher productivity.

Motivating employees in the right way is the path that leads to employee engagement. Employee engagement and employee satisfaction are directly linked. Harter, Schmidt and Hayes (2002) has described employee engagement as “the individual’s involvement and satisfaction with as well as enthusiasm for work” (p. 269). Employee engagement is directly related to satisfaction implying with an increase in employee engagement, employee satisfaction increases. Therefore, the means of increasing discretionary effort in employees is employee engagement, as this will lead to a higher level of satisfaction, and will induce employees to work harder.

In this case, enthusiasm to work harder is similar to satisfaction, and thus, an increase in the satisfaction will lead to higher level of discretionary effort. However, there are certain confusions regarding the correlation of the concepts of satisfaction and employee engagement (Macey & Schneider 2008). It is due to the absence of a strong relationship between employee engagement and satisfaction. Macey and Schneider (2008) state that the correlation usually mean that the, “hedonic dimension of pleasantness, happiness, or cheerfulness yet is portrayed more accurately when characterizing a high level of activation or energy and a state of pleasantness” (pp. 7-8).

The other concept to which employee engagement relates to is job involvement. Job involvement is defined as the psychological attachment of the employee to his/her work and job (Macey & Schneider 2008). Harter et al. (2002) has equated employee engagement with satisfaction and job involvement. Therefore, it can be concluded that in order to have employees fully engaged it is important that they must feel a complete engagement of him to the core of the job at hand. Thus, motivating employees become a foremost issue for organizations in order to make them perform better.

Discretionary Effort

What is discretionary effort and how unlocking it can be helpful to organizations? It is widely believed that employees have a higher degree of discretion on the work they do and the commitment they have towards their work. The level discretion that employees enjoy is higher than the managerial discourses would like to admit. Under adverse market conditions, the need for greater discretionary effort from the part of employees is required, and therefore there arises the need to capitalize on the whole person than just utilize the labor power (Landen 2003). Thus, management science has put a great reliance of worker’s initiative and discretion rather than just on skill. This can be achieved through motivating the employees, and helping them identify with the company vision (Landen 2003).

Now the question that arises is if employee engagement and discretionary effort same?

Many psychologists believe that discretionary effort is the means of managing employee engagement. They argue that this is a means of providing employees choices and the freedom to take decision, which will help them develop the business (Hemsley 2007; Furness 2008). Thus, many have described discretionary effort as an effort the employees choose to deliver, and therefore confirm that it is the sole discretion of the employees to unlock it or not. However, organizations may provide stimulus to unlock the effort.

How discretionary effort can be encouraged? Lloyd (2003) conducted a study based on 240 employees from retail industry. He studied the discretionary effort in the context of transactional and transformational leadership styles. He studied the various factors from organizational to leadership that could affect the discretionary effort of an individual employee. A structural equation showed a very strong relationship between discretionary effort and intellectual stimulation, in case of both kind of leadership styles and even when they were considered jointly with support variables. Organizational support too was found to be a strong predictor of discretionary effort, however, not when leadership was present in the analysis. According to the study, organizational support is provided by contingent reward, workgroup, and supervisor support. Similarly, Laden (2003) believes that “through managing knowledge, values, and sentiments of the workforce a rapprochement of the self-actualization of the worker and the competitive advantage of the company is sought” (p. 18).

Hamsley (4 June 2007) states that though the methods employed to encourage this effort may differ with organizations, but employee benefits package has a strong role in engaging employees. According to a study conducted by J. P. Morgan in 2007, most of the employers believe that their employees are engaged largely due to their benefits strategy (cited in Hamsley 2007). Further, the employees must feel valued which increase engagement and commitment to the job. Therefore, job recognition and reward system must be used to encourage employees.

Does a motivated staff unlock its discretionary effort? Yes, a motivated staff does, but a satisfied and happy staff may not. This is true for a simple reason; satisfaction is not equivalent to motivation. Herzberg (1974) clearly made a distinction between the satisfaction and motivation. Factors like salary, work safety, environment, peers and superiors when good, can stop an employee from being dissatisfied, but not necessarily motivated. It is the higher end needs, as in Maslow’s need hierarchy theory that makes the employees more motivated. Thus, motivated employees may tend to become inclined to unlock their discretionary power. Therefore, employee engagement requires more than happy employees:

Unlike past concepts of job satisfaction or staff motivation, employee engagement is not simply about creating a happier workforce, but, more importantly, about making an organization more productive and successful by engaging people.” (Furness 2008, p. 57)

Thus, the main aim of organizations in trying to unlock discretionary effort is to encourage employees to be motivated as well as increase the productivity of the organization. Some organizations try to put a lot of pressure on employees in order to meet targets, and thus increase productivity. However, this tactic is not useful as it eventually increases workplace stress and turnover instead of motivating people (Fielder 2006). So what will encourage employees to put more of their discretionary effort? Fielder (2006) has suggested a few steps:

  1. Positive feedback process must be established in order to encourage the employees and make their efforts recognized.
  2. Individual goals of the employees should be aligned with the goals of the organizations.
  3. Inculcate a culture that makes people feel encouraged, confident, and capable, so that they can remove hurdles from tough tasks and become successful.
  4. Skills and attitude alike must be stressed upon in order to get higher performance.
  5. Power and use of it should be replaced by persuasion and participation.
  6. The nature of leadership should be more inspirational and participative than authoritative.
  7. Organizational culture should be more fun to work in rather than a monotonous, bureaucratic one.


Employee discretionary effort is the key to organizations to gain competitive advantage. Organizational success is in its employees and by making, them work to provide higher productivity. Discretionary effort is unlocked when employees are motivated and engaged. However, discretionary effort is something that employees have within themselves and at times are themselves unconscious of its presence. This effort has the strength to increase organizational productivity.

Motivational theories have suggested that factors like employee engagement, job involvement, and job enrichment are the true means or making employees motivated. Therefore, discretionary effort can be unlocked through making employees more engaged. Employee engagement is actually a process of empowering the employees psychologically. Therefore, more engaged that the employees are, they feel that they have to put in more effort in order to justify the position they are in. Further, greater job involvement will lead to great employee engagement. This too is to the psychological state of attachment of the employee to his/her job. Therefore, employee engagement can lead to satisfaction with the job and lead to greater involvement. Therefore, it can be concluded that in order to have employees fully engaged it is important that they feel a completely engaged to the job to the core. Thus, motivating employees becomes the foremost issue for organizations in order to make them perform better.

Discretionary effort may be unlocked in different ways, and there have various researches and studies to describe the means of unlocking discretionary effort tin employee in order to increase productivity. A few of them is to provide stimulus to the employee intellect, establish a positive recognition and a culture that fosters participation and assimilation of the individual with the organization. These have the capacity among other factors to unlock discretionary effort in employees and increase productivity.


Fielder, R 2006, ‘How to. unlock discretionary effort’, People Management, 2006, pp. 44-45. Web.

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Posposil, V 1994, ‘Discretionary Effort’, Industry Week , 1994, p. 6.

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