Who’s killing your productivity?

Who’s killing your productivity?

Productivity: everybody wants it and also laments the lack of it. After all, no matter how productive you are, you can strive for more…and really only a few of us are all that productive in the first place.

So – if you aren’t as productive as you might wish, who is to blame? You, someone else, perhaps an actual entity? Check the culprits below (in no order of ascending or descending guilt) and what you can do about it.

Productivity Killers

  • You! the knowledge worker. The reasons vary, but many of us just aren’t all that productive – we procrastinate, or we make errors of judgment, or we fall prey to over-perfectionism, or we do things right the second time…to err is human, and most humans have some failings that hurt their productivity.
  • Your manager. The correct role of a manager – to my mind – is to enable subordinates or motivate employees to do a good job; some do this and excel as a result, but many managers have other ideas. Some micro-manage, they interfere, they add stress and unhappiness and they stand in the way of productive work. Just look it up in the Dilbert comic…
  • Your peers. These may be friendly and well-intentioned (if you’re lucky), but they can exact a severe toll on your productivity. All they need to do is pop into your office all the time (in the flesh or over some communication channel). Even if they only have a short question, or a piece of gossip…frequent interruptions will make you lose 20–40% in time to complete what you’re trying to do. You can look up the research on that or simply realize that the brain needs many minutes to recover from each interrupt.
  • Your subordinates. Ideally, if you manage people, they work serenely and effectively while you provide valuable mentoring and direction. In reality, tending to your subordinates can disable your effectiveness – usually because they aren’t empowered to do their work independently and so they keep involving you in low-level details. That may be their fault, but more often it would be yours, whether because you don’t set them free or because you don’t train them to be able to do their job.
  • Your work space. You may be so used to it that you’ve long stopped noticing, but your office area my share in the blame of unproductivity. A noisy, busy, interrupt-rich workplace – especially the ubiquitous “Open Space” cube farm – can reduce your productivity on a permanent basis. That’s why Microsoft has a long standing principle that programmers’ offices must come with a door.
  • Your company’s culture. Some companies have a great, empowering culture. Others are bogged down in a quagmire of norms and regulations that suck up both work time and mental resources. When employees must waste energy on unnecessary bureaucracy, CYA-oriented communications, and excessive workplace politics, productivity is the second to suffer (the first is employee well-being, of course).
  • Your work processes. Each company has these, but they are not all created equal; many of them are productivity killers. Take meetings: originally hotspots of creativity and interaction, these have degenerated in most large organizations into time sinks that achieve nothing, because all attendees spend the meeting cleaning their email inbox (or, more likely, trying to and failing).
  • Your technology. We can’t live without it, but today’s information technology is also a severe productivity killer contributing with information overload – and the worst culprit is email, a vital killer application that has degenerated into a source of intense grief and overload.

So – what can we do about this productivity killer’s criminal lineup?

There are many answers, and of course they differ from culprit to culprit. The first thing you must do is take a long hard look at what’s going on, figure out the root causes of your reduced productivity, and prioritize the causes – as you would with any problem requiring a solution. Then you need to decide what causes to attack.

For items 1 and 4 – yourself and your interaction with your subordinates – you at least have the advantage that they’re up to you to modify. Others, those relating to company culture, processes, and management relations – are much trickier and solving them may be difficult and risky, depending on the company. And the impact of technology – notably email – can be addressed in numerous ways, from personal strategies to organizational behavior change drives to implementation of software solutions. Lots of low hanging fruit there!

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.