We’re living in a time where the pressure to perform is higher than ever. As a result, managers often fixate on the bottom line and productivity. The rationale goes something like this—to get people to do good work, they need to have clear expectations, goals, and targets to work toward. Without measurable results, people aren’t motivated to do good work.
But a new study found that managers who focus too much on the bottom line end up hurting their team’s performance. If you think about it, a focus on productivity alone is shortsighted and futile. As former management consultant Ruth Kao Barr previously wrote for Fast Company, “It’s like someone trying to be a good husband/boyfriend or wife/girlfriend when they don’t love their partner.”
So what can a manager do instead? Here are some ideas.
1. Assume good intentions and hold people accountable
First, it’s essential to start with the (accurate) assumption that people want to do a good job and come to work to contribute. Peter Drucker calls this “Theory Y Management.” It’s an assumption that the average employee doesn’t wake up in the morning hoping to slack off. Humans generally want to contribute and be valued members of teams.
It’s also a solid, positive leadership practice to set clear goals and manage performance by providing feedback and reinforcing desired behaviors. The key is balance. If a manager focuses too much on the bottom line and not enough on the employee’s experience, the result will likely be a sub-par performance. People may withhold their best work if they think that their manager doesn’t care enough about them.
This isn’t to suggest all leaders must be soft teddy bears, or that they should coddle people and hope for high performance. Setting the bar, recognizing great achievement, and holding people accountable are still critical parts of management. It’s just these must go along with a manager demonstrating s/he cares.
2. Focus on outcomes, not methods
Managers can demonstrate caring and trust in their employees by managing what gets done, not how it gets done. Set the expectation and then get out of people’s way. Let them do things in the way they think is best. This shows that you value and trust people’s judgment.
3. Align people with what they love
Another brilliant management approach is to align people—as much as possible—with what they love to do. Everyone has some elements of their work that aren’t their favorite, so don’t expect to be able to provide a daisies-and-chocolate-every-day kind of job for each employee. You might be surprised, however, at what happens when you’re aware of what makes your employers get out of bed in the morning. When you strive to have people do as little as possible of what they don’t love and as much as possible of what they enjoy most, they’re likely to put their best foot forward.
4. Focus on development
A fundamental aspect of burnout is feeling stuck—like there is no next step. Leaders are wise to provide development opportunities for employees. Ironically, when employees feel like they have a next step, they are more likely to perform well at the level they’re currently on. Ideally, an option for that next step is a promotion, but that may not always be realistic at your company. Think about giving your employees a chance to lead projects in a different capacity than what they’re used to, or an opportunity to work with a different team.
5. Focus on the full experience
An employee’s experience is more than just the tasks we’ve asked them to accomplish. That’s why the best leaders focus on the whole experience. Leaders can contribute to a positive team culture with rewards that reinforce excellent performance. They can also do this by giving people places that support all kinds of work, and the flexibility to allow employees to work in a way that allows them to be at their best.
It’s a paradox for sure: Tthe more managers focus on the bottom line, the less motivated employees are likely to be. But there are alternatives. When leaders focus on trust and prioritize their team’s development and experience, they’re more likely to improve productivity and performance.
Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRw, is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations.