Is it possible that productivity is over-emphasised in the modern workplace? Have we reached the point where the focus on productivity is counter-productive?
It is probably one of the few irrefutable facts of organisational life that every leader is looking to improve the productivity of his/her organisation. Whether private or public sector, for-profit or non-profit (or even a utility trying to encourage its customers to consume less), every organisation strives to do more with less. This is simply the framework within which organisations operate.
Of course, the economic imperative demands that optimum use is made of resources, and that is what ultimately what productivity is about. So we are by no means suggesting that productivity is not important. It is just that …. Have you ever been in a room and been told not to think about a giraffe? What was the outcome? Of course, you promptly thought about a giraffe! Or have you noticed the child, who when told not to spill the milk s/he is carrying, often ends up doing just that?
This psychological inversion creates a counter-productive pressure that all too often leads to precisely the consequence we least desire. Of course this is the principle behind reverse psychology and is hardly news. Yet, we cannot help wondering the same phenomenon applies to productivity and whether the demands to be more productive do not in fact make people less productive. After all, Samuel Johnson once said, “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be told”
Perhaps the time has come for a different approach, and, while reverse psychology might not be the appropriate solution for improving productivity, there is certainly scope for a little role reversal.
One very simple definition of productivity is “the time actually spent on activity that adds value.” In the modern, globally competitive world, speed is of the essence and thus no-one can effectively supervise how another person spends their time, simply because time does not allow.
It is therefore impossible for managers to meet this demand and thus to retain responsibility for productivity. The best the manager can do is to enable an environment in which the individual can produce to an acceptable level.
The million dollar question is, “How does one do this, particularly in the prevailing climate of poor levels of employee engagement?” For the real challenge is to identify the means whereby:
- People will happily pick up the delegated accountability;
- This delegated accountability will increase role ownership and hence inspire greater employee engagement;
- Management will free up the time they currently spend trying to address these two problems;
- Productivity will inevitably improve as a by-product of greater collaboration and engagement.
All rather daunting, so what would you say if we told you that the answer is actually relatively simple? Some might argue that this is essentially employee empowerment and that you have already embarked on empowerment initiatives, with disappointing results.
Unfortunately, 'empowerment' is a word that is open to many interpretations and even more ways of being introduced. Consequently, there is no consistency, and – as already illustrated – it is undermined by the ongoing focus on improved results to demonstrate the effects on productivity. Thus the ingrained element of 'telling' rather than 'reminding' remains dominant, and erodes these efforts.
The catalyst to change this is quite simply to take the statement “People are our greatest asset” literally and start valuing people in this way. Not only will this give management more credibility, but it will cut clean through the forces which shape behaviour to prevent this happening in practice. It will:
- Induce greater self-interest on the part of the individual and awake the competitive urge to maximise that value;
- Through that self-interest, stimulate greater role ownership which will engender greater engagement;
- Eliminate much of the demoralising and demotivating consequence of regarding people solely as “costs” which contributes so much to employee disengagement.
- Induce the individual to manage their own time more effectively; and thereby effectively devolve productivity through the organisation;
- Improve managers’ own productivity by simultaneously relieving them of their most fruitless and time consuming activity and alleviating their biggest headache of how to engage their employees;
- Provide a primary organisational productivity measure (‘Return on Human Assets’) that will be more transparent, secure the buy-in of manager and individual alike, and thus provide a basis for meaningful analysis with greater collaboration;
- Recognise and acknowledge people as the primary determinant of competitive advantage.
All this will have a sea-change effect on productivity and, paradoxically, without any focus on the subject of productivity, prove a conclusive answer to our opening question.
We would suggest that this approach of valuing people as assets and setting up appropriate KPI to measure their effectiveness provides an essential first step in creating the new management model set out in Gary Hamel's latest book, The Future of Management. We accept that valuing people is primarily a catalytic force, but it certainly offers a powerful solution to a number of management’s most pressing issues.
This edited version of my paper "A New Perspective on Productivity" was co-authored with Professor Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology & Health and published in the January 2009 edition of Professional Manager magazine. Unfortunately it misses some of the key linkages of the original, so contact us if you would like a copy of the original piece.