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The Secret to Employee Productivity

I’ve spent the last few weeks in the United States talking to some of our clients, and I was not surprised when they all told me that over the next twelve or eighteen months, their biggest challenge is this:

They need more productivity from their existing staff.

But the reason they need it isn’t what you would expect. And the solution they boast about isn’t what you'd expect, either.

You’d expect them to justify their need within the context of their market. You’d expect them to talk about how unemployment has fallen to 5.5%. It’s hard to find good people, so they need to get more from the ones they have. Then you’d expect them to say that since the forecast is for a stable-but-not-spectacular 2% annual growth this year, the only way they can expand is by getting more out of their existing crew. And then you’d expect them to cap it off by saying that since U.S. worker productivity has increased less than one percent a year for half a decade, it’s their turn.

But that’s not what’s motivating these executives.

In fact, the real reason isn’t about the economy. It’s not about “their turn.” It’s not even about employees.

The Productivity Challenge

The real reason is personal ambition. They want to be better leaders. As they see it, low productivity isn’t the employee’s fault. It’s management’s fault. And they want to change that.

The time is right, because so much is known about excellence in management, and because the workforce has matured to the point that it demands excellence from their managers.

We’ve been through a lot recently, and that’s what’s made this change so profound. “The financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 scared and scarred the electorate more deeply and more permanently than has been recognized before,” writes the Wall Street Journal, adding that “its psychological aftereffects have been deep and long-lasting.”

Millennials were shaped by the crisis and today they pick an employer who matches their core values because they want to succeed in tandem with their company. They want to earn a promotion. They want to prove their worth. I think the same can be said of most everyone today.

So the executives I spoke to are right: low productivity is not the employee’s fault. The employee wants to succeed. Low productivity is management’s fault.

The easiest way to understand why is to remember one of the biggest blunders in your career. At least once, you had to fire a good person who had no idea it was coming. We’ve all been there. It’s awful.

And it wasn’t your employee’s fault. Management consultant and former Google star Kim Scott illustrates it with her own story about "Bob." He didn’t perform well, but everyone really liked him. She let his poor performance slide, hoping it would get better, but it didn’t. He seemed to boost morale, so she justified his presence that way. Then, as his one-year mark rolled around, she could no longer ignore the fact that Bob’s poor performance was taking her whole team down a notch. That’s when she had to take him aside and give him the bad news.

The Need for Clarity

His response shaped Scott’s career. He couldn’t believe that no one had ever told him about his poor performance. He thought everyone liked him. He thought that meant he was doing well. Why had no one helped him keep his job?

Scott realized what had gone wrong. She came up with a management term that she’s been speaking about ever since. It’s called “Radical Candor.”

Radical Candor requires you to “care personally” about your employee. That’s critical, as HBR explains: “Psychological safety improves learning and performance outcomes.” Your employee can’t produce at the top of his game unless he can settle in and focus. He can’t do that unless he feels safe, and that sense of safety has to come from you.

But that’s only part of it. You also have to “challenge him directly.” How else can he know what’s expected of him? He can’t prove his worth until he understands what his contribution is. Was Bob properly challenged? Did he understand what the company needed from him? No, not at all.

What if Scott had taken Bob aside ninety days in and said, “Look, Bob, we all really like you, but you’re not doing your job well enough.” At the time, Scott was worried about hurting Bob’s feelings. But now that we know what happened, we know a tough conversation would have made all the difference.

Proactive Radical Candor

The executives I’ve met want to be leaders who get the most out of their people. They want their productivity gains to come from engaged employees. They want to work with people who are as committed as they are.

And this brings us to the solution that they’ve been boasting about.

They’ve figured out how to make this happen. Rather than let Bob drift until he crashes into the rocks, they make sure Bob’s manager knows exactly what his team is supposed to contribute to the company.

“It’s time to start shifting to an organizational mindset and set of tools that can provide full visibility into what work is actually getting done, and where it does (or doesn’t) create value,” HBR writes.

Which is what “Radical Candor” looks like when you do it proactively. You put your managers in a position where they make it easy for Bob to understand his contribution. That way, rather than drift into the rocks, Bob fills his sail and helps the company move forward.

Sure, you’ve increased his productivity. But you did it by making him happy, letting him feel secure, and giving him a way to succeed.