Discretionary effort: A view in to internal communications

Communications within organisations have largely focused on external factors like PR, media outlets, events, marketing campaigns and promoting a positive image of the brand in a bid to increase brand awareness, public opinion and ultimately, revenue. However, there is an increase in research in to the impact that internal communications can have on an organisation and the importance of communicators within the workplace continues to grow as employee motivation and engagement falls in organisations around the world.

Communication helps people find a common purpose, agree on objectives, share ideas, spread culture and work together.

So what is discretionary effort? Discretionary effort is the argument that money only makes us show up to work; doing a good job depends on our motivation (Schaufeli, 2014). As such, we need to look at what causes demotivation and disengagement at work and help make those employees feel motivated and engaged in a bid to increase attention to detail and quality of work being produced.

What is internal communications?

Internal communications is the term used to describe an organisations ability to effectively communicate with its employees using a variety of appropriate and well researched communication methods with a view of increasing employee engagement, motivation and awareness within the workplace.

An organisations’ internal communications department (communicators) should make use of varying communication channels including newsletters, emails, face to face meetings, written briefings, noticeboards, intranets and blogs to name some of the more commonly used methods. Opening differing communication channels can serve different purposes and be aimed at varying audiences; however, the goal is to reach every employee and give them a voice, no matter the size of the organisation.

Communications in many organisations is still seen as downward (information being given by senior management to employees) with no room for upward communications (employees asking questions or discussing the original communication). An effective two-way communication method between senior management and employees can create a positive working environment, help employees understand overall objectives and priorities and can be a catalyst for change as ideas are openly discussed.

The wall that can exist between management and employees needs to be shattered for truly open effective communications to take place. This absolutely does not equate to sharing all information to every employee; know your audience and be prepared for two-way communications.

The communicators focus is to push the discretionary effort of employees, this is to say, motivate and engage your employees in such a way where they want to do more than the absolute minimum to get by. It is to create an environment that utilises positive reinforcements (praise, incentives) to boost employee motivation, engagement and morale.

What is employee engagement?

Employee engagement illustrates the effort, commitment, awareness and loyalty that employees bring with them to work every day. Engagement is a method of measuring how likely it is that an employee will go above and beyond in any given task for the benefit of their team or organisation. Engagement is a mix of attitudes (feeling positive or proud), behaviours (recommending the company as a place to work or working harder) and outcomes (better organisational performance); all of which can be strongly influenced by communications (Bridger, 2015). Engaged employees are also likely to say positive things about the organisation and committing to being a member of the team, despite being other opportunities elsewhere (Schaufeli, 2014).

Those who have researched in to the employee engagement field have stated that higher levels of employee engagement have clear links with higher profitability, productivity and innovation in the workplace as well as lower absences or sick leave (Bridger, 2015). However, those that are disengaged at work are likely to do the minimal amount of work possible to get by, will not make suggestions for change and may even have cynical views towards the organisation itself.

Employees want to feel like their work has meaning and is contributing to team and wider organisational goals; after all, this is where they will spend a large portion of their weekdays. If an employee has no sense of pride or accomplishment or communication between them and management has been fractured; they are not producing their best work. A negative mind frame, cynicism about the organisation, a lack of trust and other workplace frustrations can lead to lower levels of work, decreasing the rate at which tasks are completed, objectives hit with the possibility of lower rates of profitability.
It is the role of the communicator to discover the best practices to bolster employee engagement within the workplace while considering demographics and individual team needs.

What is employee motivation?

Employee motivation can be described as the level of energy or commitment and the drive to complete work-related tasks. Jones, Gareth R and George, Jennifer M (2008) describe employee motivation as the psychological forces that determine the direction of a person’s behaviour in an organization, a person’s level of effort and a person’s level of persistence.

The late American psychologist Frederick Herzberg proposed an interesting theory about motivation in the workplace. In 1959 Herzberg moulded a multi-level proposition on employee motivation by stating factors like company policy, supervision, interpersonal relations, working conditions and salary are hygiene factors; the absence of hygiene factors have the ability to create job dissatisfaction, however their existence does not necessarily motivate or create satisfaction in employees.

Herzberg determined that employee motivators were a fundamental building block in enhancing attitudes in the workplace. He concluded that achievement, recognition, advancement, responsibility and the work itself have the potential to bolster employee motivation and job satisfaction (Herzberg, F., Mausner, B. and Snyderman, B. B, 1959).
Summarising Herzberg’s theory of motivation, Joseph E. Gawel states that “satisfiers describe a person’s relationship with what she or he does, many related to the tasks being performed. Dissatisfiers, on the other hand, have to do with a person’s relationship to the context or environment in which she or he performs the job. The satisfiers relate to what a person does while the dissatisfiers relate to the situation in which the person does what he or she does.” (Gawel, E. J., 1997).

Why does employee motivation and engagement matter?

The importance of motivation and engagement in employees cannot be understated; it is a constant that must be tackled. That is to say that both motivation and engagement within employees will always be present and must be considered when making any internal communications decision.

How will employees react to a certain newsletter article? Do employees that can’t participate in events due to location or nature of their work necessarily care about that information? How will employees react to new technologies and who will be there to answer questions?

Think of employee motivation and engagement as two separate sections that exist under one entity. Higher levels of motivation are likely to increase engagement in employees which has the ability to create a positive culture and aid organisational objectives, while lower levels of motivation have been measured in disengaged employees.
We must stop thinking of employees as numbers or statistics, rather than the people that they are. Employees have thoughts and emotions and have the ability to affect their colleagues through conversation. If one employee is justifiably disgruntled, this may have a ripple effect.

As Herzberg said, hygiene factors (company policy, supervision, interpersonal relations, working conditions and salary) should be a fixture of the workplace as the absence of one or more hygiene factors can create employee dissatisfaction, however their inclusion does not necessarily create satisfaction. As such, hygiene factors should be a constant in the workplace; adapt policies to be employee friendly, create good working relations between management and employees and where possible, offer competitive salaries.
If the hygiene factors exist, this gives organisations the time to focus on motivators (achievement, recognition, advancement, responsibility and the work itself). It has been shown that humans crave recognition for a job well done; they want to hit all of those goals and be trusted at work. Why not break down overarching objectives in to smaller goals for employees to hit and thank them for a job well done?

Employee motivation and engagement matters because employees are human. They want to be treated as equals and recognised for their work. They want to have a positive working environment and two-way communications with management and team leaders. They want to have a relaxed working environment where it is their work and attitude that does the talking.

Increasing employee motivation will gradually show an incline in engagement, profitability, organisational performance, pride in the brand and customer trust while decreasing employee turnover.

How can internal communications improve employee motivation, and engagement?

Internal communications must go through varying channels to ensure they reach as many employees, teams and demographics as possible; no matter their location. For example, a newsletter is a great way to reach everyone where as a comments board on a wall will only impact the teams around it.

Each communication must be carefully considered, a communicator’s role is not to simply cascade emails, talk with staff or conduct survey’s; every email, newsletter, survey or other form of communication must be meticulously crafted to ensure a clear, concise and consistent message is given to all parties. Avoiding frustrations and misinformation through the communication is key; it is imperative to ensure that all relevant employees receive the same information.

Offering employees different ways to provide ideas, feedback and comments is an important step in establishing two-way communications (downward and upward) between the communicator, management, team leaders and employees. For example, placing a comments or feedback board where there is a lot of employee traffic, like a kitchen, provides an outlet for anonymous feedback that they do not get through an email. A comments board also acts as a visual representation of willingness to open a dialogue, by doing this, you are actively showing employees that you are taking a vested interest in their wellbeing, thoughts and ideas.

Employee newsletters can be a powerful tool in establishing two-way communication and can be used as a motivator; recognising employee achievements in or out of the workplace, shining a spotlight on teams and cascading of important information. This can be used to boost staff morale and motivation. Do your employees receive email or handwritten compliments from customers? A newsletter is a great way to highlight that.
New technologies and software are constantly being introduced in organisations and we need to ensure that employees have the support they deserve in adopting it. Moving from legacy systems like Lotus Notes to Outlook 2016 is a big change. Offer staff training sessions and a space to ask questions. Utilise ‘Champions’; dedicated employees who are knowledgeable in the particular software that can act as a support channel.

When sending emails, be sure to know the demographic and the purpose of the email.  Email overload is a problem that is currently plaguing many larger organisations. Send the necessary information to those it concerns and this will dramatically reduce the amount of unnecessary emails employees receive.

Be as visual as possible; as the communicator you should be seen and be open to have a dialogue with staff. Walk around the office, stop and chat with employees, offer assistance where possible, send important emails, design impactful posters that share important information – ultimately, the communicator must make their self known.
If the communicator utilises everything at their disposal and is aware of demographics, the message they are looking to get across and is clear, concise and consistent in their messaging, it will go a long way to increasing staff motivation and engagement.


There is not a one size fits all method of internal communications, there are far too many factors at play; organization size, demographic, messaging, technologies available and more. The communicator must focus on the information they want to share, consider the demographic and then decide what the best way to cascade it is.

Many communication methods should be taken advantage of as it creates a visual presence between the communicator and the employee.

Two-way communication is imperative and is a defining factor of employee motivation when it comes to internal communications. People do not like feeling ignored, they want to feel valued and recognised – allow employees to open a dialogue and encourage management and team leaders to do the same.

Employee motivation and engagement is a vital component in ensuring any organisation runs as smooth as possible; always remember employee motivators and aim to have consistent hygiene factors as their absence can cause dissatisfaction.

Look after your employees and more often than not, you will have a group of highly engaged and loyal workers who are willing to go the extra mile for the organisation.


Bridger, E. (2015). Employee Engagement.
Gawel, E. J. (1997). Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation. Volume 5, Number 11.
Herzberg, F., Mausner, B. and Snyderman, B. B. (1959). The Motivation to Work (2nd ed.).
Jones, Gareth R. and George, Jennifer M. (2008). Contemporary Management.
Schaufeli, W. (2014). ‘What is engagement?’ in Employee Engagement in Theory Practice.
Yeomans, L. and FitzPatrick, L. (2017). Internal Communication.

Additional Reading:



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