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How Productivity and Discretionary Effort require a Psychologically Safe Workplace



UK productivity is 30%¹ lower than in the US and 35%² lower than in Germany.  It is primarily low labour productivity that lies behind this situation.  One cause is attributed to a lack of exposure to global ‘best practice’³.  It particularly relates to how organisations create a culture that combines innovation and effectiveness with Psychological work conditions which allow staff to ‘Thrive’.


Thriving occurs when individuals are able to operate optimally.  Typically, this means they feel valued by their line managers and colleagues, work demands are aligned with capability and capacity and they are able to put forward alternative ideas or opinions without fear of retribution.


Interestingly, HR Magazine recently reported that in a UK survey by ORC International of 7000 organisations, only 37% of staff were encouraged to be innovative and less than half felt valued at work.  So significant is the productivity issue that leading business figures have set-up “The Productivity Leaders Group” led by the Chairman of John Lewis, Sir Charlie Mayfield.  The group is pioneering changes in the way businesses optimise human contributions.


Innovation of products and systems through technological change is one route.  However, the second is that of a focus on discretionary effort which impacts directly on processes and the type of service or output that is generated.  Here discretionary effort or “going the extra mile” is what can create significant Productivity Gains.


Yet those who “choose to go the extra mile” often do so because of their personal desire to achieve an improvement or outcome at a level that is better or different to the norm.  It can be choosing to solve a very complex or difficult problem that others may not consider it to be worthwhile.    It can be using judgement and taking risks when others will play safe.  It can be thinking about future issues or opportunities as well as the current matters, whilst others are content to deal just with the ‘here and now’.


Often, the characteristics of those who do exercise high levels of discretionary effort are seen as being willing to be different to others, perhaps putting a task or job before themselves, speaking up when an issue is present but not acknowledged, suggesting solutions to problems which involve others, recognising and praising others’ contributions and constantly looking for better ways to improve a service, process, or product.


Individuals are more likely to do this if the climate at work is Psychologically Safe.  For example, is it safe to suggest ideas, is it safe to express different views or opinions, and is it safe to ask difficult questions knowing that there will be no risk of harm or retribution and is it safe to try and possibly fail, but be valued for trying?


If we want individuals to exercise discretionary effort and hence raise productivity we may need to assess how Psychologically Safe workplaces are.  How safe is it to be different, how safe is it to express different views and ideas, and how safe is it to exercise appropriate discretion?


At the consumer level, we’ve all experienced individuals in organisations where they choose to exercise discretion – be it the Train Ticket Inspector, the Bank Clerk, the School Head’s Secretary or the GP Practice’s Receptionist.


All individuals impact on how their organisation functions.  They can enable and improve processes to run smoothly or not.  They can generate high levels of “customer satisfaction” so enhancing future sales, fewer complaints, less visits to others in a team, so saving time and resources.  They can identify ways of improving the process or service.


One of the most famous innovative and discretionary effort examples is the Tesco check-out operator who 20 years ago suggested to a visiting Board Director, the idea of cash back at the check-out.  Within a year, Tesco had saved millions by reducing the amount of cash that was sent to the Banks, so reducing costs whilst simultaneously enhancing the customer experience.  The Board Director and Store Manager had created an environment where it was safe to suggest ideas regardless of seniority.


Interestingly, we don’t frequently assess Psychological Safety levels in organisations or teams, but still expect high discretionary effort levels.


One really positive step is seen in the 2017 Stevenson/Farmer report⁴.  It sets out for the first time a Performance Indicator for Chief Executives that includes recognising improving the Mental Wellbeing of the Workforce as an organisational priority.


Perhaps we need to recognise that whilst investing in Productivity Gains via technology is important, the human elements that drive gains will most likely occur if we simultaneously actively seek to improve the levels of Psychological Safety at work.  Measuring it would be a starting point.  Integrating that measurement into a Performance Indicator for managers as a norm would institutionalise the importance of it.


Given the organisational and individual benefits, it is timely now to encourage organisations to adopt this as part of their strategic and sustainability plans.


¹Office National Statistics, 2016

²Office National Statistics, 2016, and Howard Davies Guardian Newspaper, June 2017

³Why labour productivity is so low, McKinsey Quarterly

⁴Stevenson/Farmer report, 2017, Thriving at Work

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