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Employers, your productivity obsession is ruining your company

Long-term success comes from a clear and compelling vision.

Employers, your productivity obsession is ruining your company
[Photo: Serena Spedicato “Artemides”/iStock]

A colleague once told me a story of a boss he worked with who suffered a heart attack days before a high-profile project was due. A combination of poor health, high stress, and a series of unfortunate events resulted in his collapse. His project was under-resourced, over-promised, and tied to a highly critical client that would not accept “no” for an answer. Despite all his health issues, he requested a conference call while he was still recovering from the hospital.

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As a former management consultant, I lived off the word “productivity” like most of my clients and colleagues. But after advising over 100 companies, I realized that we’re paying a high price for hyper-productivity–our health, happiness, and humanity. Don’t get me wrong. I get giddy with productivity as much as the next person, but I don’t think it’s productive to focus on productivity. Here’s why:

The limitations of productivity

Productivity is supposed to be the by-product of meaningful purpose and vision. We experience abundant natural energy when these things align, which drives us to action. But focusing on being productive alone is shortsighted and pointless. It’s like someone trying to be a good husband/boyfriend or wife/girlfriend when they don’t love their partner.

Unfortunately, many (but not all) organizations focus on “productivity” because they haven’t figured out an authentic and inspiring vision. It seems to be a quicker solution to balance the books with people versus getting the business strategy right.

Organizations invest millions of dollars to “optimize,” “streamline,” “right-size,” or “standardize” in hopes of squeezing more “productivity” out of their organizations. In the short term, cost-cutting, compliance tactics, or changing behaviors and habits are fine and have their place. But these things can’t replace a strong vision and a compelling business plan.

When meanings are absent from the workplace

As a former consultant, I’ve witnessed countless projects where the client’s team members didn’t know what a project’s end-goal was. They worked with consultants because they had to or their boss asked them to. But there was no real appreciation or connection between the work that they were doing and a meaningful contribution to their company.

In fact, oftentimes, I would hear things like,” Well, my boss said this project is to achieve X, but for all I know we could be working ourselves out of a job.” I’ve also heard, “The goal of the project is X, but that’s what they said about the last project before a bunch of us were laid off or moved to another team.” My favorite is, “I don’t know, I was going to ask you since you probably know better than I.” As a result, we’d get resistance, passive-aggressive behaviors, politicking, and just a lot of time wasting, which was costly. Everyone was very busy and pulling long hours and neck-deep in meetings, but they weren’t doing anything productive.

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Employees typically don’t feel a genuine connection to and aren’t energized by goals to help companies get bigger, faster, better. What people want to connect with are answers that address questions such as:

  • “What’s the greater cause?”
  • “How’s the company vision going to make the planet a better place?”
  • “How is what we’re creating going to make the lives of our customers better?”
  • “Why are we doing this?” How does this align with my values?”

If we focused on connecting to the meaning of work, everything else has to align, including productivity. Here’s what will happen when companies don’t relate to their people on a human level:

  • More and more employees will be sick and burned out
  • Qualified and purpose-driven people will leave
  • Company performance will decline

Unfortunately, many companies are still hyper-focused on profit. But in the long-term, businesses and employees who value multiple bottom lines will be the ones who succeed.

What companies miss out on when they only focus on productivity

Words matter. When we talk about “making people more productive” or “getting more out of our people,” we become obsessed with what we can take from another human being. We measure the value of someone with what they can crank out and lose sight of the more intangible value such as creativity, ideas, contribution, empathy, learning, insight, and the human connection that’s vital for not only wellness but meaningful work.

Next time you find yourself wondering what you can do to make your employees more “productive,” take a step back and think about why and what you’re doing it for. Great companies examine their vision and purpose and work backward, and they ensure that their employees have bought into their mission. When you do this, the rest will fall into place. You’ll no longer need to focus on productivity.


Ruth Kao Barr is the founder of MYBREATHINGMIND–Life and Wellbeing Strategy & Coaching. As a recovering Fortune 500 management consultant she has previously helped executives and managers master their work, now she helps people master their lives.

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