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Michael Brown

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Performance management: the five most common productivity killers and how to combat them


Inefficient processes mean your employees may be a lot less productive than you think and this is no doubt costing your organisation dearly. Here’s how to assess how productive they are and remove those barriers.

How many days per week do you think your employees are working efficiently, doing what they are supposed to be doing? Jot down your answer as honestly as you can.

I’ve been working in training rooms around the world since 1998, and in that time I have been asking people to self assess on this question. I’ve gathered thousands of responses, so am confident enough in what the average answer is to publish it here. The answer is a somewhat shocking: two.

The rest of the week, employees like yours tell me, they are either doing things inefficiently (in which the worst culprit is processes and procedures which are in some cases virtually unfathomable and impossible to trace back to owners), or more often, they are doing things they shouldn’t be doing.

This is just their opinion, and is therefore a good topic for discussion with their manager – which rarely happens because it might create conflict, and conflict avoidance is the preferred way to handle it at work, according to research by Ralph Kilmann.

How much is it costing?

Pause to consider this statistic for a moment. If your organisation is getting by on two days per week of employees doing what they are supposed to be doing, what is the opportunity cost of this? What difference would it make to your bottom line if you could improve the result by one day per week? What would that be worth?

The good news is that these dysfunctions are capable of being fixed. People are able to turn things around, they just need a bit of encouragement.

The chances are that it could mean the difference between make or break, beating the competition or not, keeping your best employees or losing them. Unproductive employees are probably disengaged, long faced and feeling either frustrated or stuck. It rubs off on others and probably affects your culture.

The top five dysfunctions

I’ve been researching what the top five causes of this poor productivity are. How many of these do you personally recognise?

  1. Useless meetings: these are the biggest time waster of the lot. Symptoms include: no agendas, poor or non existent time management, no clear actions or owners, no follow up on agreed actions at subsequent meetings, the wrong people being present (people who are often there ‘just in case’), no timings on the (non existent) agenda, so people have to sit and wait for the whole meeting to do their five minute bit. I could go on. It’s absolutely basic stuff and hopelessly inefficient as a result.
  2. Lack of clarity: unclear or non-existent objectives (which are often not objectives but are targets sent down from on high). Unclear responsibilities. Unclear and constantly changing direction. Ambiguous language. (For example, ‘be the fun’ was one supposed mission statement I came across recently. What does that even mean?). Ill-defined roles, and so on.
  3. No coaching: since managers don’t know how to coach (and don’t see it as central to their role), coaching is rare. This means individuals do not grow as they might, and are not able to step up and take on more.

    They don’t have a chance to put forward ideas for improving things, because they are being told what to do instead. Crappy processes remain just that, and employees revert to waiting to be told what to do and when.
  4. Moving too fast: operating in a state of constant urgency causes various dysfunctions. One is that there is never time to review and learn, so the same mistakes keep being repeated. It also means critical questions at the start of projects don’t get asked, such as why we are doing it, what’s important, what success criteria we’re working with etc.

    Instead, the mantra is ‘the sooner we start, the sooner we finish’, and people jump in regardless, like the proverbial headless chicken. This is perpetrated at senior level, and seen as the way things are supposed to be done. Slowing down and asking questions is seen as being difficult, and so we never get it right first time and end up working weekends to fix it.
  5. Conflict avoidance: people do not feel it is OK to say no, and lack the skills to do so assertively anyway. As a result they take on things they know they ought to push back on, and revert to moaning about it at the water cooler and working at the weekend to catch up on the important stuff.

This may make for gloomy reading, but there’s no point dancing around it. How many of these do you recognise?

There is hope yet

The good news is that these dysfunctions are capable of being fixed. People are able to turn things around, they just need a bit of encouragement.

All of the above can change if behaviour changes, but as we all know, for that to happen, people need not just the skills but also the attitude, belief and values which support the behaviour. They also need to see it happening all around them, particularly at the top of the organisation.

Faced with this situation, I would focus my initial effort on line managers. These people are often fostering these dysfunctions because they don’t know better and haven’t been shown a different approach. Some back to basics coaching and training at this level will pay dividends and provide measurable increases in productivity.

Interested in learning more about how to make staff more productive? Read Why you need to stop focusing on efficiency

3 Responses

  1. This article and message is
    This article and message is something near and dear to my heart because at the last company I worked with, I think about 50% of the employees were just not very excited or engaged about what they were doing. Sadly, management was oblivious and did nothing about it. On the one hand, I do feel it is each persons responsibility to find a job that excites them so they are engaged without needing motivation. On the other hand, it’s also important that the leaders “lead” their people.

  2. Thanks so much for this
    Thanks so much for this article, it’s very real and those 5 dysfunctions are spot on! In my experience, people often recognise these barriers, but do not feel empowered to change things for the better for whatever reason. In our training programmes, participants tend to be alarmed and excited in equal measure at the notion it’s in their power to improve their productivity and the quality of their working day. Obviously there can be structural issues too, but so much can be achieved with empowered staff.

  3. It’s natural for people to
    It’s natural for people to get distracted and even I am tempted to let my mind wander if I didn’t have more self control. That’s why when I’m at the storage facility, it’s important that I switch off my phone so I can concentrate and dedicate myself to the services that I need to provide!

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Michael Brown


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