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Leadership Challenge: Optimizing Productivity

When you come right down to it, an organization is nothing more and nothing less than people and information interacting with each other. However simple this is to capture in words, it has become increasingly complex to manage. How to optimize these interactions is still a mystery to most people. One particular irony is that we are intensely strategic about all of our other organizational choices, but we too often leave the human issues to human resources or even worse, to chance.

Leaders who, directly or indirectly, coordinate the efforts of others have more responsibility than ever before to design human systems that are based on a greater understanding of the human being– systems that utilize and optimize the talent and ability people bring to the enterprise. But this might make us question many old and deep-rooted assumptions. It may mean that we have to turn things on their heads and challenge our core beliefs. It may require us to admit that what we thought were truths were simply old habits that have gone unchecked. The old assumptions about work were born in an age that lacked workplace diversity, created from the military model, threatened punishment for non-cooperative behavior, involved a scarcity of valuable information rather than too much of it, depended on the boss to have most of the answers, and worked only where things rarely changed.

The old assumptions are gone, now what should replace them? In this column we focus on one of the primary tasks of leaders, maximizing productivity.


Four causes of lower productivity

We are not suggesting that you implement the old Tavistock model, T-groups, group/team therapy, or the naïve let’s-all-get-along models of 30 years ago. The work place should not be so harmonized that it’s more like a group hug than a place where things are supposed to get done. In fact, the best research shows that too much compatibility can cause a dysfunctional and less productive workplace. Some of our diagnostics on failing organizations prove this. Productivity doesn’t require uniformity and cozy compatibility in the workplace, but it does require knowing, understanding, and doing something about how people think, behave, work, and coordinate their efforts.

In our studies on productivity, we have found four causes of lower output or sub-optimized outcomes.

1). First, and contrary to what managers usually think, we are finding that lower productivity is most often caused by a system flaw. These flaws (we have found 12) vary from poorly designed reward systems to poorly designed floor plans to systems that are so bent on compatibility that they have not had an original idea or taken a risk in years. The cause is often something naively or accidentally designed into the organization. Sometimes it is cultural norms or habits that were well intentioned, but ill conceived in terms of their potential ripple effects or their unintended consequences. If people aren’t being as productive as possible, it’s most often because they are diligently and faithfully following a badly designed system or trying to work within an organizational culture that conflicts with productive behaviors.

2). The second most common cause we have found is poor management. You know the old saying: “People join organizations, but they leave bosses.” Here is an example of how this plays out: when we ask managers what part of their jobs they find most difficult or unpleasant, they mention most often “having a straight conversation with a subordinate.” This is tragic since the main job of a manager is to coordinate the efforts of people. But people are not naturally skilled at this behavior, so we default to our personality types in these situations. Good managers might be born, but they can also be made.

There is an irony here. When we think of poor management we will often think of a boss who is brutal, a bully, thoughtless, not caring about his or her people. There are thousands of books on the shelves to teach you to be a more people-focused manager or to tell you what to do with an unbearable boss. The irony is, believe it or not, poor management may also be caused by a manager who is too compassionate, too focused on the people, too worried about what they think and how they feel. We’re not talking about a weak manager—that is yet another cause of managerial failure. We’re talking about a person who might be a very strong people-oriented manager, maybe even the one who gets the manager of the year award.

These folks can become rescuers. When employees come to them with problems, the helpful manager feels responsible to solve the problem. This is well intentioned and thoughtful, but the unintended consequence of this behavior can create a counter-dependency, a parent-child type of relationship, or even a culture of entitlement. There’s a lot we don’t know about what makes people tick, but we do know this: the greatest gift you can give to another human being is self-sufficiency.

Here’s the good news: As a manager of people, you are no longer totally responsible for fixing things. You are responsible, however, for ensuring that the “fixes” are consistent with the frame of reference that has been chosen for your culture. Then you can hand it back to employees and ask them to come back with a solution to their problem that is within that frame of reference. It’s called “accountability.” Managers and employees share accountability in a healthy system.

So, the productivity problem may be an ineffective manager. But a caution here: a poor manager may have been caused by a system flaw, such as promoting people because their technical performance has been so good that we “reward” them by giving them people to manage. Let’s be honest here, managing people is not necessarily a reward—it’s an additional and very difficult responsibility, requiring new knowledge and separate skills.

3). The third most common cause of lost productivity is a bad fit. Jack Welch is reputed to have said, “Keeping someone who is a bad fit is just mean.” Be careful with this diagnosis, however; a person with undeveloped skills may become a good fit with the appropriate development. One of our clients decided to add “selling” to the job description of data processors, and the manager just couldn’t understand why they were bad at it. The reason wasn’t complicated; they just didn’t know how! After appropriate development, we found that only two percent were unable to incorporate the new skills. So I say this to managers: what comes easily to you might be your gift, your talent, and not all people share it. But they may be able to acquire it, if you learn to develop your human talent more effectively.

4). Finally, the least likely cause of lower productivity is the individual employee—usually no more than 1% to 5% of the time. When it looks like this might be the problem, first try fixing it by adjusting the system or the manager or the fit. In our work, we have had some significant success at taking disenfranchised people (you know, the ones who quit and stayed) and getting them on board again by an accurate diagnosis of what caused the problem. If the problem really stems from the individual employee, there are only a handful of causes such as personal crises, life issues, substance abuse, or psychological problems. If any of these exist, remember that managers are not qualified to fix these causes. That’s why we have Human Resources and employee assistance programs. The good news is, these individual issues are rarely the cause of lower productivity.

As we look at the above causes of lowered productivity, notice something common to all of them: the overwhelming majority of causes of lower productivity can be addressed and solved by a rigorous and systematic process of understanding and adapting to your people– the way they really are.


Author: Laree Kiely, Ph.D., President, The Kiely Group. Dr Kiely served on the faculty at USC for over 15 years. In addition to currently leading the Kiely Group, she serves as faculty for leadership programs at Duke CE, UCLA, USC, Thunderbird, and Ivey (Toronto). The Kiely Group specializes in Leadership and Organizational Impact. Please send your comments, questions, and stories to us at: [email protected]


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