The Hidden Dangers of Our Obsession with Productivity

When Employees Can Say No, Their Commitment Goes Up

THE DESIRE to be productive is a part of our national DNA. Individually, it started at an early age when we learned the Newtonian law of cause-and-effect implying that if we work hard, success will come. When we entered the labor force, we heard the constant drumbeat of the need to “increase employee productivity” and “improve employee performance.” The companies we worked for, Wallstreet, and even the Government talked about ways they measured employee productivity. Then, we got promoted, incentivized, and acknowledged for our ability to “get stuff done as fast as possible.”

Over our company’s 28-year history, “increasing productivity” has been one of the top five reasons employees and leaders hire us for coaching. Recently, it occurred to us this desire for productivity was an unexamined mindset that needed further exploration. Psychologists say too much energy pursuing something – even something good – is an unhealthy obsession. Likewise, we found that too much effort to increase productivity often masks interpersonal and company-wide issues.

After years of working with thousands of clients, we saw a pattern emerge. Employees obsessed with productivity were far more likely to experience burnout and far less able to think strategically. Organizations obsessed with productivity were structured for execution, not learning, and they perpetuated a hidden command-and-control leadership style. The unspoken social contract between all lower and higher authority employees was to never say no. Employees who did say no risked losing status, opportunities, job security, and they were labeled non-team players.

To understand what is at the source of this productivity obsession, we surveyed several of our clients. Here is that survey, broken down into three sections: Clarity, Capacity, and Comfort. Those taking the survey were asked to rate each statement on a scale of 1-6; strongly disagree to agree strongly.

Clarity: When we know the big picture goals, and what is expected of us, it’s clear when to say yes and say no.

“The organization or department is focused on crucial value-add strategies that don’t compete with one another. I understand how what I do supports department and or company priorities. I understand how my work is measured.”

Capacity: When we have the skills, time, and capacity to do a task, we can successfully complete it.

“I have the equipment and materials to do my work correctly. I have the time to do tasks I’m asked to do, well. I have the know-how to do tasks, well.”

Comfort: When there is permission to say no, and we have the interpersonal skills to negotiate or deny a request, trust and team effectiveness goes up.

“I can say no without the fear of being punished or made to feel I am not a team player. I won’t accept a project or task unless I can fully commit to it. I have the finesse and negotiation skills to say no in a way that respects the relationship I have with others while not selling myself short.”

While we keep collecting data from clients taking this survey, we have formulated a set of potential insights:

  • The obsession for increasing productivity is caused by the inability to set boundaries and deny requests of leadership,
  • We can make productivity improvements when we completely understand what is expected of us, have the skills and time necessary to complete assigned work, and possess the permission, trust, and skills to negotiate requests from management,
  • Commitment and engagement go up when employees are allowed to voice concerns about their ability to fulfill expectations,
  • Organizations need to encourage more reflection and after-action-review-type discussions to fully understand the cause of issues instead of deploying short-term fixes, which only creates more problems.
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– Josh Billings