Want to Build Discretionary Effort? Focus on Building Rapport

Think of discretionary effort as the more in the “I got more” GEICO commercials.  Discretionary Effort is defined as performance that is above and beyond the minimum requirements of a job. More importantly, the discretionary effort of employees is earned, by the organization and by leaders, in how they interact with employees.  In a recent article, the authors looked at how rapport-building behaviors influence performance and the discretionary effort given by participants in a mock work environment. Specifically, before the participants started their work task, they spent time with an experimenter in one of two conditions described below:


Test Group

Control Group


Open-ended questions to increase “interpersonal closeness”

Closed ended questions

Responses to answers

Positive or agreement statement

Said “okay”

Body Language

Smiling, eye contact, leaning toward the participant

Limited eye contact and limited smiling

After these interactions, the participants were given 40 minutes to do a repetitive work task and were then asked to complete a rapport rating survey on the experimenter. Before they left, participants were told they would receive an optional survey, consisting of multiple choice and open-ended questions that they could complete if they wanted.

The study found that participants in the test group were not only significantly more productive (14% more) with the work task, but they also participated more in the optional survey and the quality of their participation was higher in the number of questions answered, words written and overall time spent completing the survey. The study also showed the that test group “enjoyed participating in the study” more than the control group.

What does this say about discretionary effort and how can these findings help leaders in the workplace?

As a leader, your interactions and the quality of your interactions matter and have a direct effect on the performance you earn from others. The way you build rapport with employees can directly influence how they view you and their work. Focusing on rapport building is a key skill to develop as a leader. Not only will you receive higher performance levels, like this study shows, but it also increases the likelihood that the feedback and reinforcement you provide to employees will have the desired influence. Leaders have the ability to give value to reinforcement and to the consequences people experience (see my previous post: Are you a Reinforcement Creator or Killer?).  Rapport building is another way to ensure that your employees care about the things you do. 

Posted by Bryan Shelton

Bryan applies his knowledge and expertise in strategic planning to help organizations align employee performance with company goals. Bryan helps clients create improvement across a variety of business metrics including company growth, profitability, customer service, vision alignment, leadership development, and culture change. He also helps clients implement process improvement initiatives, improve sales results and using performance-pay systems to help drive company results. His behavior-based approaches and applications have supported clients’ improvement initiatives, leadership development, and the design and implementation of performance pay systems.