How to motivate employees to be more productive

How to motivate employees to be more productive

I often advise corporate knowledge workers how to be more productive – after all, I’m a productivity expert, aren’t I? But the truth is, while the individual corporate employee can see valuable gains in his or her productivity by adopting my advice, the real leverage comes from advising their managers on how to motivate employees.

There are many advantages to being a manager, and a major one is that a good manager can do wonders to make their subordinates productive – which benefits both the company and the people involved (remember, being empowered to do a good job is a prime source of pride and satisfaction).

How do you motivate employees?

Not by just ordering them to be productive, you bet. Nothing hurts motivation more than a manager telling you to work better without enabling you to do it. Employees are very skilled at detecting double messages, and if you tell them to produce more output – which is what productivity entails at the end of the day – while keeping everything else the same, they will ignore you and lose all respect for you.

What you need to do are three things: Guide, Empower, and Role model.

Guide your employees

Tell your employees how they are to become more productive.

Show them better, faster, more economical ways of achieving the end result. Shorten processes. Reduce approval cycles. Set new norms.

A few example:

  • Are your employees required to submit weekly progress reports to their supervisors – or to you? Consider making them biweekly. Less report writing – more time to create real value.
  • Are emails in the group being sent to large distribution lists, wasting recipients’ time? Specify smaller distributions. Ban the custom of copying one’s supervisor on every message. Have folks put files on SharePoint rather than send them in emails.
  • Is the default meeting duration in the team one hour? Decree that it be 30 minutes and see what happens.

The point here is, only you can drive such changes in the team’s processes and norms. Not that you should pull these things out of thin air – you’d do wisely to consult with the entire group, maybe even hold an off-site day to analyze the situation and define the needed changes. But at the end, the changes are yours to hand down; you have to provide people the guide to what they are to do!

Empower your employees

It isn’t enough to define the required behaviors: you need to empower employees to pull them off. How you do that depends on the details: some changes require investing in new equipment or software tools, some require providing training, some may even require adding headcount. By doing these, you transmit a clear message – single, not double.

And a few example for empowering employees:

  • If you decide that email messages need to be clear and easy to read, you may need to give people training – to engage a training vendor specializing in business writing, and have all hands show up for classes. It costs money. It costs time. It puts your money where your mouth is, which has an invaluable impact on the credibility of the whole thing.
  • If you analyze what makes your people work ineffectively, you may find that highly qualified people are doing menial work well below their qualifications, pushing more valuable work out in time. The solution may be to redefine their responsibilities – and to empower that, you might bring in assistance in the form of administrative support.
  • A good deal of productivity can be gained simply by removing approval requirements. Allowing people to make the decisions in their area of responsibility without waiting for someone to rubberstamp them is both productive and motivating!

Become a role model for your employees

Lastly, you must practice what you preach.

Not doing what you ask of others will dampen their motivation immediately; doing it will have them following your example just as fast. Whatever you told people to do, walk the talk yourself.

  • If you tell people to respond to their email the same day (a great accelerator of any business, but one requiring supportive norms and practices) – you must do it yourself when responding to their messages to you.
  • If you tell people not to clean their inbox during meetings, you must never even seem to be doing so in the meetings you participate in, whatever the temptation. Close the notebook’s screen and pay attention!

I said above that a good manager can do wonders to make their subordinates productive… and the converse is also true: an incompetent manager can destroy productivity across their entire group. Tread carefully!

Nathan Zeldes
Nathan Zeldes

Nathan Zeldes is a globally recognized thought leader in the search for improved knowledge worker productivity. After a 26 year career as a manager and principal engineer at Intel Corporation, he now helps organizations solve core problems at the intersection of information technology and human behavior.