Although the most recent ONS figures showed a minor uptick in UK productivity, the overall trajectory remains disheartening. Diminished productivity has a detrimental impact on society, fuelling inequality and depriving crucial institutions such as schools, hospitals and public services the essential resources required to cater to communities. Business leaders can, in theory, influence productivity through mechanisms of investment, innovation and competition. Yet poor productivity persists.
What is getting in the way of high productivity?The missing piece of the productivity puzzle is leadership. Productivity increases when leaders are decisive and courageous. Productivity declines when leaders vacillate and suffocate – when they are untrusting, micromanaging and, quite simply, not acting powerfully. In many countries with large mature economies, it’s easy for complacency to set in – and the same can be said of leadership in large mature companies. The demise into stagnation is slow and impossible to feel day to day. Collectively, we kick the can down the road. The digital transformation stalls, the push into the new market pauses and the toxic team member is never dealt with.
Leading with unconscious fearIn my recent global study I found that in the UK, a quarter of emerging leaders are leading with unconscious fear, costing a staggering £2.2 billion drop in productivity and performance. It’s estimated there are 235,000 fearful leaders in the UK, nearly 25% of all emerging leaders (those at the earlier end of their leadership experience). They’re learning from more experienced leaders, who have created the productivity problem. Leaders will give good reasons to avoid making decisions: it’s not the right time, there are too many obstacles – we’ve all heard them (and to be clear, I’ve made them at times – leadership is hard). The reasoning seems valid, until you realise what’s driving it: unconscious fear. Fear is in the water in corporations, so much so that we accept it as normal. It manifests in subtle yet damaging ways in leadership:
- Avoiding difficult conversations
- Undermining others
- Shifting the blame
- Not speaking up
- Staying small to be safe