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Super Size Productivity Now: 3% Automation, 97% Leadership

In the 2009 Shift Index, Deloitte reported that “75 to 80% of the workforce lacks passion for the work they perform on a daily basis.” Lacking passion? That’s a euphemism for unmotivated. I wonder what the results would be if the employees surveyed had all worked for companies that had undergone a reduction in force (RIF): 90%?  This raises two questions: How is it possible that the Labor Department has reported bumper rises in productivity if employees are unmotivated?  Does this mean a motivated workforce is inconsequential to success?

The reported rise in productivity isn’t surprising. Employers cut their labor force disproportionately to their production volumes. They also favored retaining employees who handled routine tasks that leveraged automation to fill orders over those facilitating nonroutine and strategic brain-intensive tasks. It’s likewise not surprising that any employees said they were unmotivated, with or without a RIF.  Following a RIF many employees lacking a cause for optimism simply punch the clock. Employees are always looking to be inspired to work harder since their compensation for showing up is the same.

Inspiring Routine versus Nonroutine Task Employees
There are significant variations in what inspires employees. Take an employee who works on a team with the routine task of building finished products. Her output is easily measured, she may enjoy working with her colleagues, and she doesn’t have career aspirations. This employee can be inspired by the job security she believes she earns by increasing productivity and continued companionship. Employees that work on nonroutine tasks, on the other hand, have tasks that are complex, longer in duration, and with output that is difficult to measure. These employees can require regular infusions of various forms of inspiration that must be monitored and addressed by leadership in order to stay motivated.
 
I have worked at many companies that automated every routine function possible within manufacturing, quality assurance, and anywhere digital information was being collected, processed, or presented. Their employees were paid well and equipped with high-performing, presumably productivity-enhancing personal computers and mobile devices. These companies were very efficient at filling routine orders but financial performance was troubled and most employees were unproductive.

The unproductive employees handled nonroutine, brain intensive, higher-value tasks. They researched and defined new products and markets, ensured customer satisfaction, and secured new customers. They were responsible for: marketing; product, market and business strategies; innovation of every kind; and unique customer requests. Their diminished productivity was directly tied to both a lack of motivation and the organizations’ unhealthy financials. The source of their demotivation was leadership. These employees were missing direction, skill impaired, uninspired by leader behaviors, dismayed by company performance, tired of working in crisis mode and frustrated by organizational conflict.

It’s seems like a paradox but leaders can efficiently run their organizations into the ground when their focus is on routine operational tasks that serve current customers, products, and services.  This is because there is always customer attrition; every product at some point becomes uncompetitive and obsolete, and every market becomes saturated. Increasing productivity for products that people don’t want to buy is a formula for layoffs and bankruptcy. Leaders love to focus on what they can measure, but focusing on routine tasks to the detriment of strategic tasks is a mistake. An organization may weather an economic downturn, but it will be unprepared for the upturn. To prosper in the upturn, companies must come prepared to meet any new challenges that have arisen, such as new competitors and product innovations. Leaders must realize that there is no magic start button that creates strategies for new products or competitors. Unlike routine tasks which often have short and known durations, these nonroutine tasks can have very long and indeterminate lead times. These production runs can take months and months and this is with motivated employees.

Motivation and Productivity
Organizations that want to supersize productivity must maintain a dual focus on automation and employee motivation. Companies will soon find that productivity that sustains organizations is 3% automation and 97% leadership. Developing motivational leaders is a two step process: (1) Exterminate demotivating practices and behaviors; and (2) address the drivers of motivation. Leaders that are under-skilled in business fundamentals, such as finance, strategy, organizational behavior, marketing, and quality management will instigate misguided initiatives that take a toll on productivity. Leaders that are poor financial stewards will procure non-essential goods, forcing cutbacks on needed projects. A manager that leads without a strategic direction inspires discord and exacts an omnipresent toll on motivation and productivity. Managers who don’t think in terms of process foment chaos. Unskilled communicators offend and obscure. Managers that administer RIFs but fail to restore motivation create lean, crippled companies.

Some readers may be thinking that surely every leader possesses these ordinary skills. Trust me they don’t. I have worked with hundreds of leaders that were anointed with management titles and they were nothing more than unskilled masquerading managers. They massacred productivity everywhere they went. 
 
Nothing craters productivity like the absence of a guiding strategy. A plan that can’t lose is a weighty charter that virtually ensures an organization’s success, but its development takes work. It requires leaders to be strategically knowledgeable, data-driven, and have the tenacity to probe endlessly into changes in the environment, industry, and their organization. When these skills are light, leaders won’t be able to guide their teams to produce innovations and this will zap motivation and productivity— today and tomorrow. Employees are not inspired watching the future of an organization slip away as markets saturate or product lines age or become noncompetitive.

When leaders are skilled in business fundamentals they can motivate their teams with strategies that can’t lose with minimal disruptions. This leaves one other demotivating source: uninspiring leader behaviors. Leaders that appear rude, arrogant, aloof, weak, irresponsible, or uncaring are an unending source of demotivation. If leaders can embrace that employees are emotional beings whose productivity is affected by their bad behaviors, this can go a long way to eradicating this demotivating source.  

Take volatile Victor, a CEO with an inability to control his anger. One day he shouted at the engineering team: “Only the world’s worst engineering team could possibly produce  such awful products!” The exodus of engineering talent soon began and the company began its trek into obscurity. After leaving, describing what happened, one engineer showed me a professional-quality comic book. It was a book of the CEO’s angered outbursts. He said: “This is how we spent our time at work these days.” I now had another entry for leadership behaviors that destroy productivity.
 
This moves me on to tackling motivation, which means that I have to admit that there are no motivational panaceas. All employees have some combination of unique wiring, backgrounds, and personal situations that translate into what motivates them and when. Some employees are innately wired to be motivated by achievement, affiliation, or power. Leaders, however, frequently assume that money/power is a universal motivator. This often leaves them scratching their heads when they see that only a fraction of the workforce, the wrong fraction, were motivated by a cash incentive. At one company, employees were offered a cash reward to expedite the delivery of a product. Some became angry thinking that their leaders believed they would compromise product quality for money. These were achievement-motivated employees who were motivated by feeling good about their accomplishments. The affiliation-motivated employees weren’t motivated either. Energized when work is a source of social fulfillment, they were depressed by the damage to the esprit de corps this incentive inspired.

Employees are also motivated by certain needs that they generally like to satisfy in this order: physiological, safety, social, self-esteem and self actualization. However, if a satisfied need subsequently becomes unsatisfied, the employee will return to it. The aftermath of a RIF is a great example of how motivational needs can collectively digress; personal career aspirations will quickly take a back seat to the need to provide a family with food and shelter. Leaders who fail to address the new importance of physiological and safety needs following a RIF by offering a credible strategic plan for survival will see the wheels of productivity go flat.

In general, if physiological and safety needs are not being met or perceived to be in danger, all other motivations become secondary. But once these needs are satisfied, leaders need to appeal to the next motivational hot button because satisfied needs are not a source of motivation. For employees working on routine tasks, it’s likely that social and affiliation motivational needs will be next up. Employees working on non-routine tasks are more likely to seek motivation in the form of achievement, power, and career development.   

Automating routine operations can increase operational productivity, but this is insufficient for ongoing survival and success. There are always new challenges that organization’s need to address, such as Asian competitors ready to pounce on weakened American rivals, aging populations, slower economies, and reduced availability of credit. Leaders must embrace that there is nothing routine about continued success. Motivational leadership that maintains a dual focus on driving productivity in operational and strategic tasks is the sine qua non of survival and success today.

 

 

About the Author(s)

Kathleen Brush, Ph.D. a management consultant, has over 20 years’ experience as a senior executive and is a frequent writer and instructor on management and business. This article is an excerpt from her upcoming book Leadership=Motivation=Innovation+Productivity  (spring 2010). For more information, contact: kathleenbrush@gmail.com.