Why your employees don't care about productivity

Why Your Employees Don’t Care About Productivity

June 10, 2020

According to Gallup, 53% of employees give the minimum effort required to complete their work. In other words, more than half of the workforce are doing just enough to collect their paycheck and no more. Employee engagement – which is traditionally defined as the willingness to invest discretionary effort on the job – offers a similarly discouraging picture. Despite hitting record highs in 2019,  still only 35% of employees are engaged in the US and far fewer are engaged globally.

Together, these data points suggest that the majority of workers feel little incentive to become more productive (i.e., to generate more impact in the time they spend on the job). While there are many causes for low engagement levels, part of this likely stems from the fact that many employees define their job too narrowly. If you think your job is only to do what you’re told, then you may not realize that it is in your best interest to get better at it. In this article, we talk about broadening this definition for your employees so they consider two other responsibilities part of their job:

  1. Increasing their team’s impact (defined however your team defines hitting its goals)
  2. Taking on increased responsibility

When employees internalize this definition of their job, they usually recognize their need to become more productive because they must do work they are not being explicitly and/or regularly asked to do. (If you’re wondering if getting people to care about productivity is even a good idea, then your doubts are likely linked to your definition of productivity. Here’s how we define it.)

The ‘Law’ that Keeps People from Investing in Productivity

However, this is not the case if one of the ‘laws’ of modern work is in play at the team or company level. Parkinson’s Law, named for British naval historian C. Northcote Parkinson, says that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” On an individual level, this law can be seen when you give yourself an hour and a half to complete a task that should take you an hour and, as a result, it takes you the full 1.5 hours. The same effect often happens in meetings, causing teams to fill the entire scheduled time even if they didn’t need it.

At the organizational or team level, this law causes people to work the same amount regardless of their level of productivity. For example, if it took you 50 hours per week to complete your work and now it only takes you 45, you still work the full 50 because more work is given to fill the original amount of time. This has a debilitating effect on productivity. An associate at leading strategy and management consulting firm explained it this way, “Why should I get my work done more quickly if I’ll just be given more work to fill the time?”

Why is this manifestation of Parkinson’s Law so common in organizations?

Two similar beliefs create room for Parkinson’s Law to flourish in most organizations.

The first is that more work is always better than less. If your team or company can do more, the increased output will lead to increased sales, profits, and impact. In client services, this means there is always something else you can do for a client. In product development, this means there is always another feature that can be added.

But more work does not always lead to more impact. As we explain in “The Lie that Perfectionists Tell Themselves,” more features can confuse users and undermine the user experience. Producing more work can cause you to get out in front of your clients or the external environment, such that your clients aren’t ready for the work so they reject it or the external environment changes, making your work irrelevant.

This line of thinking also causes teams and organizations to seize the fruit of increased productivity rather than allowing their employees to enjoy it. For example, if a team is ahead of schedule on a project, most managers will take advantage of the accelerated pace to push further ahead rather than giving the time back to team members as a reward for their productivity.

The second belief that encourages Parkinson’s Law is that getting more out of your employees is always better than less. This belief is incredibly short-sighted because it fails to account for what employees need to sustain their output and performance over time. Your most resilient, highest performing employees may be able to crank out good work for a while putting in 80 hours per week, but very few can maintain that pace even if they manage to avoid becoming resentful. Research clearly shows the diminishing returns of working more than 50-55 hours per week.

As long as these beliefs exist, even tacitly, among leadership in your organization, Parkinson’s Law will be present.

Reward productivity of your employees

Like any behavior that you want to increase, you need to reward your employees for becoming more productive if you want them to pursue it. Thorndike’s Law says that any behavior followed by pleasant consequences is likely to be repeated, while any behavior followed by unpleasant consequences is likely to be stopped. We all understand this intuitively, but most companies fail to recognize the fact that loading more work onto their most productive people actually causes their people to abandon the pursuit of productivity. Employees focus on doing their work as well as they can, which leads them into perfectionism, rather than doing their work as efficiently and effectively as they can.

Here are several specific ways to reward productivity:

  • Publicly praise employees for beating deadlines: Those who care about productivity strive to beat deadlines so that they have time for other things. However, most people only accomplish work when they are up against a deadline. Whenever an employee beats a deadline, praise them in front of the rest of the team. Note this as a strength in their review. Explicitly state to the whole team that you would love to see them beat deadlines. Of course, if the quality of their work doesn’t meet expectations, then they must re-calibrate.
  • Give employees a choice for how to spend the time they earn: If employees finish their 50 hours’ worth of work in 45, let them choose how to spend the other five as often as possible. It doesn’t mean that you have to let them choose completely independently, though you can. You can give them choices for how to spend the time. For example, you might say,

“I’ve noticed that you’ve been getting your work done in less time and still doing a great job. This is really amazing! How would you like to reinvest the time you’re saving? You’re welcome to spend some more time outside of work, or the team could benefit from some help in this area, or I have this exciting step-up opportunity that I thought you might be interested in… Whatever you choose is completely fine. Think about it and let me know.”

  • Publicize and share best practices for becoming more productive: If employees are getting done with their work more efficiently, it’s likely because they have adopted some best practices. You show value for their accomplishments by asking about how they have achieved those gains and then giving them a platform to share what they have learned. This helps others achieve the same gains, and it shows everyone that you care enough to make time to source and share strategies for how to become more productive and that those who increase their productivity will get opportunities for influence and leadership.

Make your employees motivated again

Control is one of the key drivers of motivation. If you feel in control of your work life, you’ll be more motivated to work, all else being equal. Productivity is one of the primary keys to regaining control over your work life because it gives you more ability to design your workdays, determine how you spend your time, avoid micro-management, and invest in your lives outside of work.

Today, many employees sign in to work as a means to an end: work > get paid > spend money outside of work to enjoy life. It doesn’t have to be that way. While there are many ways to address disengagement, one of them is to increase your employees’ productivity. But you’ll struggle to do that until they want to become more productive, and you’ll struggle to get them to care about productivity until you rid your organization of Parkinson’s Law and reward your people for gains in productivity.


If you need help figuring out how to get your people to care about productivity, or you’ve done the hard work to get them to care and now you want help boosting their productivity, email us or schedule a time to connect. We’d love to be part of your journey.