the politics of discretionary effort 

Since first encountering the notion of discretionary effort, I’ve been fascinated by it. This is a definition I found on page one of Google:

Discretionary effort is the level of effort people could give if they wanted to, but above and beyond the minimum required. Many organizations manage performance in such a way that motivates employees to do only enough to get by and avoid getting in trouble (negative reinforcement).

What renders discretionary effort so problematic is how difficult it is to verify the amount of effort people could give if they wanted to. Particularly if employees are conceived as rationally seeking to minimise their effort, it can license all sorts of performance related interventions in order to mine discretionary effort: heating up the floor to see who can keep hopping the longest, in the pithy phrase used by Will Davies which I’ve been obsessed by since coming across it.

But things looks rather different is arenas where passion dominates occupational self-understanding. This is something I’ve blogged about a lot before but it’s been on my mind recently since I interviewed the team behind The Sociological Review’s excellent Gender and Creative Labour monograph (podcast coming soon on @thesocreview). The invocation of passion offers an entirely new way to mine discretionary effort, one that is perhaps more congruent with the day-to-day necessitaties of knowledge work orientated towards creative production. This is how a programmer described the experience of being a new hire in the early days of Microsoft, a place renowned for the expectations of long working hours that were perceived to dominate the employment culture of the firm. Quoted from Gates, by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews, loc 2993:

Fresh from academe, he loved the challenge. “It wasn’t like there was pressure to work twelve-hour days. It’s like you were an astronaut or something. You just kind of loved working so much.”
Loc 2993