We Need to Stop Punishing Productivity

Working hard in today’s world is something of a catch-22. The unspoken expectation is that if you are productive and efficient, you will be rewarded for your efforts. But it very rarely works out that way. In reality, if you work harder than everyone else, you just get more work than everyone else.

For many people—bosses and employees both—this may not sound like a bad thing on the surface. We live in a culture of hustle and working hard and doing that work well should be its own reward, right? For a while, it is probably going to feel good if you can assert yourself as one of the superior workers in the office. But eventually, all that work is going to start to take its toll.

It’s a very natural behavior for bosses and manager to fall into. You recognize a quality worker and you understandably give them a workload beyond what you expect of everyone else. And that’s not bad in its own right, but too quickly a manager will go overboard with the amount of work they expect the quality employee to do.

And for awhile it’s fine. They do the work and you get the productivity you expect. But slowly over time this sort of move may begin to affect their performance negatively. It’s not hard to see why. They look at how much work they are doing compared to everyone else and all that effort starts to be feel punitive. It starts to feel like an inefficiency.

So they get lazy. They stop trying as hard because they aren’t incentivized to try as hard. They find ways to waste time, to phone it in, and inevitably they slow down. Because ultimately for them, it’s the smart thing to do.

And then the worst part is that since the expectations for that worker are so high, this inevitable dip creates a gaping hole in your workflow. As a boss, you stop being able to rely on them in the same way and it throws everything into chaos.

Bosses may recognize this problem, but at the same time, it can seem very hard to come up with an adequate solution. Sure, you could let the productive worker do all their work in the first half of the day and sit around all afternoon, but that seems like a gross waste of hours.

And sitting around isn’t necessarily enjoyable for the employee either. So we might as well discard that as a possible solution. The team member doesn’t have to stop working completely when they get ahead. There are other, more reasonable ways to deal with this tricky problem.

The first step is always to be clear upfront about what the workload is. If you can avoid it, never surprise the overachieving worker with more tasks. And more importantly, never shift work away from a less achieving employee just because you think it will correct an inefficiency. That is the quickest way to alienate and demoralize both individuals.

If you can afford it and if it suits your structure, it might be worth being flexible with your hours. You’re just asking for inefficiency if you stick strictly to a 9-5 without accounting for the nuanced working habits of everyone on your team. Not everyone is ready for that kind of freedom, but it’s something worth considering if you think you can make it work. It may even act as a very compelling incentive to get the rest of your team to kick it up another notch.

You don’t even have to do that though. This problem can be corrected quite simply by offsetting the punitive aspect of an excess workload with the appropriate reward. In big and small ways, it should be 100% clear to the overachiever that their work is appreciated. Whether it be a genuine promotion, a moment of recognition, or an opportunity to pursue new areas of interest. Every single act of reward counts for something and shouldn’t be ignored.

But ultimately, you need to talk with your team and take the time to learn what their limitations are. Some people like to work hard and they are happy to take on more work. But if they seem burnt out and can’t keep up with the same pace, their limits needs to be respected. You should never give an employee any reason to fear acknowledging their own ceiling.  

We humans are not immune to the basic instinct of punishment and reward. Even if we’ve completely embraced the hustle philosophy, it’s still going to hurt when you think that your hard work is only being punished rather than rewarded. Take the time to reward, take the time to really know the people working under you, and you will be rewarded in return with consistent quality and efficiency.

— ZK

Ed Lynes13p5Comment