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10 Counterintuitive Ways Your Business May Be Killing Productivity

From a mechanistic point of view, a performance management system acts as an interface between components so that each component (person) knows whether or not their performance meets the standard for each metric (like a piece of equipment). When our performance doesn’t meet the standard it displays a warning that is intended to give our brain a fear jolt to motivate us to step up our game. The problem with that is that fear is a counterproductive motivator. The bad news for business is that there are fear triggers around too many corners at work.

When you review this list, do you see any familiar destructive behaviors?


Over reliance on metrics. Environments with a high dependence on performance metrics require people to limit their focus to only those metrics, at the expense of everything else. It forces people to strictly think about themselves and ignore their co-workers, customers, and behave in ways that negatively impact the organization (including gaming the system to “manage” results).


Badgering bosses. Managers are often judged and rewarded based on their team’s performance. It seems reasonable. Unless they live in fear of not getting the recognition and compensation that they deserve and then they feel compelled to crack the proverbial whip and exert their power over others in the worst possible ways. Bad bosses that demand top performance often get the results they want in the short-term. Unfortunately, it reinforces the bad behavior until the team eventually reaches a breaking point and implodes. In the meantime, the bad boss is likely to have moved on with the reinforced yet mistaken belief that their approach works, leaving someone else to deal with the disaster that the bad boss left behind.


Accountability abuse. What may seem as the way to ensure work gets done, by holding people accountable, translates to the workforce as targeting the scapegoat when things go wrong. The fear of making a mistake or facing retribution for speaking up when things start to go sideways overrides the willingness to try new things. As a means of self-preservation, having a good story (excuse) has become the norm for missing deadlines and failed projects in many organizations. In these cases the organization is failing in two ways. First is the missed deadline or failed project. Second is the missed opportunity to learn about what went wrong and fix it so it doesn’t happen again. It means everyone is running around trying to make sure they’re not “it”, the accountable person.


Competitive incentive structures that induce a low trust environment. Competitive incentives foster the negative assumption that other people are operating with self-interest at our expense, so we feel forced to respond in a defensive way to protect ourselves. Over time, people may feel compelled undermine each other’s efforts in order to receive the rewards they feel they deserve, even to the detriment of the organization. Competitive environments can inhibit communication, destroy collaboration, and trigger counterproductive conflict.


Short-term focus on metrics can negatively impact long-term sustainability. Much like the repair verses replace debate on home maintenance. If all you ever do is patch the roof, one day you’re sure to experience a catastrophic failure. Organizations routinely face countless decisions with long-term implications. If the performance metrics are geared towards this month, quarter and year, combined with the volatility in today’s market is sure to trigger a tragic event sooner than later.


Over scheduled workdays rob the brain of the ability to make the creative connections that lead to innovative ideas. The mind must be relaxed so the connections are allowed to flow naturally. Great ideas require a period of incubation.


Multitasking myth. The human brain is energy efficient and energy sensitive. The brain cannot be at full strength in two or more places at the same time. Yes, it can be divided, but power where it’s most needed is lost. If the task requires lots of brain power then it needs our full attention. Doing more doesn’t get more done. Instead, it takes longer and lowers output quality.


Highest hours worked badge of honor. Competing for the highest number of hours worked in a day, week, month, or year? It’s not a badge of honor. It’s a sign of working with a mental impairment, like drinking booze or taking recreational drugs on the job. Humans are not machines. More operating hours does not ensure more high quality output. It makes for more mistakes and poorer communication, collaboration and, over time, destroys relationships because we’re never at our best without rest. Sleep deprived people hurt themselves and everyone around them.


Piling on processes and procedures to ensure conformity and compliance. This type of environment breeds complacency because people are forced to shut down their ability to think in order to avoid dealing with the frustration of complying with ineffective and out dated rules. Things change so much and so quickly that processes, policies, and procedures are usually outdated and ineffective as soon as they are implemented and never accommodate every situation that people face every day. It creates a zombie workforce. People are better served by operating with simple rules that serve as guides for addressing challenging situations in the moment.


Banter versus bullying. What to one person might seem like harmless “locker room” styled banter (insults intended to shame the target into improving their performance) might be perceived by the person on the receiving end as bullying simultaneously triggering a fear response, destroying trust, and evaporating productive energy. While shaming has occasionally been known to get short-term results, it’s not a good way to build the strong trusting relationships that lead to superior long-term success.

Using fear as a motivator immediately triggers at least two counterproductive behaviors:

  1. It activates the fight/flight/freeze center of the brain and toggles off the executive function, thereby acting as a lobotomy and lowering our capacity to perform and
  2. Turns our attention to self-focused survival mode and what we can potentially lose, while forgetting all about cooperation, teamwork and organizational goals.

The antidote for fear is trust. Fear shapes our behavior patterns. Our patterns change and adapt based on our relationships and experience. Organizations that create a high trust fear free environment hold a crucial key to success in our volatile, uncertain and complex world because their workforce will have the mental capacity to adapt.

High performance fuel comes from unleashing the human spirit. The greatest untapped source of human motivation is our sense of service to others. The most successful organizations nurture our natural desire to join together to achieve great things.

The best way to harness human capacity (energy) is to create an environment where relationships can flourish (high trust) and then channel the resulting energy to support meaningful strategic and operational organizational goals. Beware of restricting human performance to a set of metrics because it can limit focus on the wrong things, at a time when we need the best each person has to offer.

What examples of productivity killers have you seen?

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