Unproductive? Blame the boss, not the workers

In light of recent comments from the new prime minister about British employees’ productivity, Barbara Stöttinger argues that the onus needs to lie more with managers

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We all have them – the moments where you’re in the flow and producing quality work. And these moments, the key to our productivity, are creatable. There has been a lot of concern about productivity, especially here in the UK. The onus of productivity, particularly when the output is considerably lower than other countries, is too often put on the employee. Liz Truss, the UK’s new prime minister, recently said that British workers “lack skill… they’re too lazy”.

So why the employees? One could turn around and ask what about the managers? The supervisors and directors? Does the CEO bear no responsibility? Rather than engaging in a blame game that can only produce quick and handy answers instead of forward-looking and productive solutions, I believe it is more important to focus on what may lead to a lack of productivity and how to get back on track. 

Given the recent comments by Truss about productivity, it’s important to emphasise that workers are not the only ones to blame – creating an environment for workers where flow and productivity are fostered is key, and this responsibility lies with business leaders. I delve into detail about what leaders are doing wrong and where they need to improve below. 

Their goals are too vague

They get lost in translation as work is attributed down the hierarchy. The final objective may be well-defined, but they have failed to outline succinctly what each worker must do to get there.

They fail to understand the vitality of downtime

Innovation and new ideas more often than not come outside of the office, or on the return from a break. If the working environment enforces a constant mental stress, then the likelihood is that the workers are not being as collaborative as they could be. 

They thrive in their comfort zone

It is the uncomfortable that makes us grow. Through trial and error, trying different ways of operating will only lead to one of two things: you are able to cross off what doesn’t work, or you learn a way that works even better. Desire to innovate is a key drive to achieving flow, and having this yourself will pass down to your workers.

They designate tasks randomly, and rigidly

Leaders need to allow workers as much freedom as possible to delineate their own work, discover their passions and specialties, and note their competencies and areas of improvement. Knowing your workforce inside and out will permit for more efficient task allocation based more on talent and skill, rather than accident or roulette.

The feedback is self-destructive

Providing alternatives and notes on improvement is far more flow inducing than simply just pointing out the wrong. Likewise, feedback should never be saved for just one day. Regular one to ones provide a great space to speak with employees, but day-to-day comments on improvement should be swift, specific and results oriented. 

They believe in intra-team competition

Some levels of competition can be healthy, but one that fosters envy? Not so much. Competitive work rooms can only work if teams learn, lose and win through each other’s successes and mistakes no matter how big or small. 

They fail to communicate openly, preferring (again) vagueness

Employees are most productive in open environments, and with good reason. If something is irritating, not working, or just simply not as good as it could be, then employees must feel free enough to discuss this openly. Without repercussions.  

They don’t even care

Leaders must ensure that their time is not consumed with administration, board meetings and emails. They need to spend time with employees on their job, learn the ins and outs of their roles and discover elements that frustrate their process. Create that direct link between the operations and the management. 

They have yet to realise the power of the flow

Delineating all fault to the worker without taking onboard any for themselves is a leading factor to failed and inefficient work. Your own working style is perhaps not ‘flow competent’ – leaders need to make sure they reflect on what a productive working style looks like.

As we approach the close of 2022 with some of the gravest economic conditions seen for a long time, let us not enter 2023 with the wrong mindset. Skills can be taught, and productivity is not based on how lazy employees and workers are. It is the responsibility of managers and employees to promote an environment that creates proper work flow, and not prevent it. And it’s easy enough done, just nine steps after all.  

Barbara Stöttinger is dean of WU Executive Academy