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Influencing Productivity


Deadlines, scarcity and pointless shouting are three techniques for influencing productivity with differing degrees of success.

So 3M, you’re telling me that your post-it notes will adhere 317 separate research notes onto a wall for sorting into categories but after an hour, with the window slightly ajar on a not-especially-windy day, they will not remain adhered to said wall? Is that what you’re telling me 3M? I only ask because it didn’t say that on the packet! Maybe I should’ve stapled them to the wall? I know what I’d like to staple to a wall. Seriously, I love your product but I fail to see how this is, in any way, my fault. Much like how I fail to see how anything is my fault. This was my fault. In fairness only a hundred or so fell off. So, the glass is half full. 31.545% full. On the plus-side, they’ve all clumped together on the floor so they’re not being blown around anymore. Except the ones that have. Which I can’t find. And can’t tell that they ever existed.

I’m a writer, amongst other things. Writing is a great occupation to reflect different approaches to productivity. I tried using post-it notes to enhance my creative productivity because, until I get a PC screen 3 metres by 3 metres, post-it notes on a wall is a superior approach to anything computers can offer but, as the rant above suggests, it worked up until the point that it didn’t. Writers aren’t productive for money. If they were, they wouldn’t be writers.

Productivity might be enhanced by working away from an office without the distractions and interruptions that offices have. Nope, writers don’t have those – just fridges, TVs, radio, FaceBook, kids home from school and the voices in our head.

People get productive when there’s a deadline or when there is a scarce resource being competed for. Things that are running out get appreciated. This is why we hunt for the last chip in the bag and those crunchy bits. This is why we eke out the last of the toothpaste in the tube. I like the experience of the last saline solution for my contact lenses. You shake the bottle and can’t believe there’s still some left but it keeps on coming until the very last which emerges in a fizz. You place your lens in your eye overflowing with tiny bubbles. It’s like champagne for your cornea. And don’t get me started on the challenge of getting your car as far as it can go when the tank says empty. Oh, it says empty but you know it’s holding out on you. Just like the personal trainer at the gym knows your tank isn’t really empty and just shouting at you loudly and repeatedly will extract that last little bit of effort out of you. (Note – shouting at your car as you abandon it by the side of the motorway after it’s literally run out of petrol will not extract any more effort out of it. It does however make you feel better about yourself. I suspect this is also the motivation of the personal trainer.)

The New Zealand Government has a Productivity Commission. It’s great to finally put the word “productivity” in a sentence with the phrase “New Zealand Government.” I suspect this might be one of those political sops to a minor party under MMP to be seen to be doing something but their website has some cool graphics. There’s a 3-panel sketch with a sheep turning into a ball of wool that itself turns into a jersey. I’m assuming that’s all about adding value which is the essence of productivity – not just making more with the same or less resources but creating goods of greater value along the way. The jersey, when you squint a bit, is actually made up of 1s and 0s – binary code. Bit more symbolism there – from the sheep’s back to the digital age. Or maybe we make robot sheep now? I’ve seen that movie. It doesn’t end well.

As the site says, when it comes to kiwi productivity, “New Zealand has slipped from one of the wealthiest countries in the 1950s to now around 26th in the OECD. It is not the case that our productivity has shrunk. Rather, the rate of increase in productivity has been behind other countries and our income growth has been slower.”

We’re well educated and honest but we’re small, far away and over reliant on a few industries. We’re never going to get that much bigger and, major tectonic shifts aside, we’re unlikely to get any closer to major markets.

A PDF available on the website of the agency formally known as the Department of Labour suggests we should “work smarter.” I’ll start by not drafting the main topics of my next book on post-it notes.





Employee Engagement Requires More Than Caring Bosses

boss hugThis blog post makes a clear demarcation between the behavior of bosses that can enhance employee engagement and the lazy assumption that it must all be about being nice and friendly and a soft touch.

I’m seemingly forever clarifying to people that employee engagement is not synonymous with employee happiness or morale or satisfaction. They’re all nice things. They’re all interesting. We’d all probably like to work in a job where there are higher levels of happiness, satisfaction and morale. BUT employee engagement is a very narrowly defined phenomena – the application of discretionary effort. It isn’t about how workers feel or think or think they feel. It is about how we observe they behave. To what extent do they do more than they have to because they choose to – for whatever reasons? It’s not about evil, moustache-twirling villainous bosses extracting everything they can and more out of labour. It is about people’s fundamental human, psychological needs and how they are served (or not) in their work.

Our jobs need to be about more than a paycheck. We take a job for the money but how we perform once we’re hired is less about money than managerial wisdom has thought for years.

And it isn’t about bosses being ‘nice’ or a soft touch. I can get my own hugs thank you very much. A boss who, on the surface, may seem ‘un-nice’ or uncaring might actually be driving high levels of engagement in the people they lead. Regardless of their cliche and superficial people skills, if they can stimulate a sense of purpose in their people, backed up with allowing some degree of autonomy and provide a track for development and progression, then that goes a long way to enhancing engagement levels and the benefits that ensue for productivity and profitability.

But if you still want hugs – get a dog. A big one. I recommend a huntaway. Way less employment court consequences.

Which Workplace Perks Enhance Employee Engagement?

perksNo potential superstar employee is going to reject the trappings of success you offer but will the free petrol, subsidised healthcare or at-desk massages actually improve their engagement and performance. Some perks do and some perks don’t and it depends. This post citing some recent Gallup research is revealing.

“Gallup found that access to flexible work time, which is considered a more mainstream workplace perk, is related to increased employee engagement.”

“…remote workers are slightly more engaged than onsite workers…”

One of the usual drivers of motivation and engagement is autonomy – a sense of control or, at least influence, over if not what we do, at least how we do it. That’s tough to create or allow in many jobs, especially routine or entry-level ones but if you can generate it to a degree, it can positively influence engagement and thus drive the associated productivity benefits. Something like flexi-time is a good compromise, where it is do-able, in generating this sense of influence / autonomy. Gallup does warn though of the “diminishing returns” which is worthy of note.

“…an engaged management team and a positive work environment are more beneficial than housecleaning and bowling alleys.”

Don’t deny already engaged employees their perks if you wish to provide them and it makes you feel good but clearly many are not drivers of engagement or motivators. Far more effective are the low-cost but disturbingly rare ‘perks’ of positive feedback and non-tolerance of poor performance. Perks, by definition, are extras and these two I just mentioned shouldn’t be extras, yet the behaviour of many workplace leaders makes it seem like they are. It’s easier to throw trinkets but far less effective.

Although, if the trinket you’re throwing is a bowling ball in the company lanes, that’s almost certainly a health and safety issue.

Feedback: What Happens In Vagueness Stays In Vagueness


Here’s a blog post about the dangers of non-specific feedback. The blogger references the work of psychologist Carol Dweck who I also quote in my book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’ on the subject of fixed versus growth mindsets. Here’s an excerpt:

The work of psychologist Carol Dweck is germane here. What she’s found is that, when children are praised in abstract–“You’re so smart” or “You’re so creative”–rather than concretely about how they improved their performance–“You put in an enormous amount of work, and it paid off”–the feedback is diminished. How come? Because the child takes from the teacher or parent the idea that she is innately smart or creative, and that she doesn’t need to work at it–so she doesn’t.

On the other hand, very specific feedback–especially about something an individual can control–can work wonders.

Quite rightly, the blogger points out that general statements such as ‘Good job’ might make you feel better and make you think that you’re dishing out some positive feedback but it needs to be more than merely positive to be useful and conducive to enhanced productivity. That phrase would need to:

  • be said at the time the specific action warranting praise occurred or as immediately afterwards as possible.
  • be said to the specific individual performing and controlling the praiseworthy action that you’d like to see more of.
  • contain a few more details and expectations than 2 words of generality (what exactly was the bit that was good?)
  • some connection to a greater goal, the wider team or higher purpose.

So, here’s some specific feedback to several new Twitter followers I’ve gotten recently – If you’ve only got 17 Twitter followers yourself, best not describe yourself as a ‘social media guru.’

Are Your People Even Remotely Engaged?


Telecommuting, working from home, remote working or pyjama time – whatever you call it – does it lead to greater employer engagement? This article says, “Yes.” I would say, “Yes it can if managed effectively.”

The writer makes some good points:

1. Proximity breeds complacency

2. Absence makes people try harder to connect

3. Leaders of virtual teams make better use of tools

4. Leaders of far-flung teams maximize the time spent together

It’s kind of sad though, that potentially one of the main drivers of improving someone’s engagement with their work is a greater distance from you – their boss.

I think I agree with the writer’s points 3 and 4 particularly as they are a reflection of my remark about remote workers being more engaged if “managed effectively.” Just hurling people back to their homes, selling their desks and expecting magical pixie dust to sprinkle down and engaged productivity to occur is crazy.They’re just as likely to go bush or loco if left isolated. They still need all the structure and goals etc of good management and the vision and passion of good leadership. They just need it ‘delivered’ instead of ‘pickup’.

7 Tips For Motivating Employees


UnderArmour’s founder Kevin Plank’s got some views on what motivates employees. Here’s an article about them. I don’t agree with everything in it, especially the bit about “happiness,” but otherwise, with emphasis on autonomy and connecting business success to employee success, it’s very sound.

The articles key points are:

  1. Set a good example
  2. Focus on employee happiness* rather than employee motivation
  3. Make sure employees share in the company’s success
  4. Create a culture of autonomy and agency
  5. Encourage workers to voice complaints
  6. Take on fun volunteer assignments
  7. Get in touch with your inner start-up

* (I think they mean culture rather than happiness really. There’s no evidence linking happiness in its literal sense to productivity one way or the other. That said, I like happiness personally.)

There’s some ‘meat n potatoes’ engagement stuff in there but there’s some clever and original thinking too. I love the ‘anti-fan club’ concept to proactively create a medium in which beefs can be aired and sorted early. This links nicely with my ‘Go ugly early’ philosophy in my book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’ .

The ‘controlled chaos’ referred to in the article is engagement in action. Scary to conservative managers, it’s accepted and sought after by genuine leaders. And it’s coming up to Christmas where controlled chaos is, apparently, what we all want on the roads the shops and our homes.

Employees React Negatively When Prompted to Think About Money


Here are some studies that show that reminders about money led consumers to react against people who would normally influence their decisions.

For all the talk and research about the extent to which money motivates people, I’m certain its very important. My personal stance is that people get a job for money but, unless they have a routine, linear and unthinking job, money doesn’t motivate them to do any more or better work. Money gets people to show up and it’s a control mechanism. Calling the carrot or stick of money a motivator is giving it too much credit. And if there’s one thing money doesn’t like, it’s credit.

Pimp Your Office – Can Physical Environment Impact Employee Engagement?


My new book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’ has a section on how physical environment can influence people’s workplace behaviour and choices. Here’s a great little article on the same topic from someone whose job title is ‘Chief Happiness Officer.” (What’s the emoticon for rolling your eyes again?)

I shouldn’t knock the guy for his job title. I admire the sentiment. I’m generally pro-happiness. I am very aware however that happy workers are not necessarily productive, nor are unhappy ones necessarily unproductive and that there is way too much use of engagement as a synonym for happiness.

That aside, I’m also in favour of distinctive and changing physical work environments. I find them stimulating both mentally and physically. That’s useful for us creative types but also for people working in routine or linear processes who have to maintain alertness and awareness. Try driving straight for miles and miles as in the US or Australia and see what that does to your alertness and awareness. Lots of little variations keep us on our toes.

I must search out one of those desks that enables you to stand whilst working. ‘Get moving’ is a great and proven way of adding quality and quantity to your life. Here’s a recent blog of mine citing a Dutch desk / bicycle combo.

Check out Kjerulf’s article. I personally love the bibliochaise. I want one, no, two. Great to share with a friend the simple act of sitting and reading…then… tweeting about the books… But then there is also the meeting bed… perhaps just being practical about how most meetings put people to sleep!

The Employee Engagement Racket

This blog post from Liz Ryan reckons employee engagement is a racket for HR consultants to lever their way into organisations’ budgets preaching the faux theory de jour:

“Every decade or so, a bright new theory about managing people gets HR chiefs all excited… What is Employee Engagement? It’s a made-up construct that seeks to measure how well our employees like us. We used to talk about employee morale…”

Given how she defines employee engagement, I agree a bit with her. Quite a bit. If it is just another phrase for employe morale, I’ve blogged repeatedly how that doesn’t have that much to do by itself directly with productivity and profitability or even being a decent place to work. What people think they feel or say they think they feel on a survey is probably not worth the time to collect.

However, that’s not the true definition of employee engagement as measured by directly observable discretionary behaviour by employees. They don’t have to be happy or be able to recite the company’s mission from memory. Those two things may or may not contribute to a state of mind where the employee applies discretionary effort. That’s employee engagement – doing more than you have to, more than you’re told to – seeking improved mastery, autonomy and a sense of purpose, driven by heightened self awareness and a desire to influence others.

By that true (truer?) definition, I would not agree with Liz. Not about employee engagement anyways. I probably would about the whole general  ‘racket for HR consultants to lever their way into organisations’ budgets preaching the faux theory de jour’ thing. That happens all the time and for $3500 a day, I’ll tell you all about it. Might even draft up a survey…


I Like The Product So Much That I Bought The Company

I recall an advert from a couple of decades ago where a chap was so enamoured with his electric shaver that he bought the company.

This article references a four-year study showing that simple share ownership, not owning the entire company or a majority or even a significant slice but mere share ownership, improves employee engagement. No doubt the Microsofts, Apples and Googles of this world would agree with that. Actually, I have no idea. In my mind or imagination I have an image of their creative types slaving away out of a sense of purpose and mission. Might just have been a movie. Or three movies.

Here are some other perspectives and some more depth.

My problem with surveys, once again, is the futility of asking people if they would work harder if they had owned shares in the company for which they worked. Asking people their intended conditional behaviours is lazy. Better to observe and compare their actual behaviours under different conditions. ie working with and without share ownership or before and after.

But let’s take the predictable findings at face value. I am a sole contractor. I own my company. I am my company. I’ve never worked harder or been more engaged. I think share ownership as part of remuneration might work pretty well and move people in the direction of hugely engaged owner-operator types but it’ll never quite get to that level. I like my product so much that I AM the company.

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