Is Productivity Harming Your Soul?

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The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.

Helen Keller

The Price of Hyper-Productivity

A colleague once told me a story of a boss he worked with who suffered a heart attack days before a high-profile project was due. What sent him to the hospital was a combination of poor health, high stress, and a series of unfortunate events that resulted in his collapse.

His project was under-resourced, over-promised, and tied to a highly critical client that would not accept “no” for an answer. Yet he further surprised his team when he requested a conference call while he was still recovering from the hospital. As a former management consultant, who has advised over 100 companies in my career, I lived off the word “productivity” like most of my clients and colleagues. But my experience is that there is a price to pay for hyper-productivity, and that is our humanity. Don’t get me wrong, I get giddy with productivity as much or more than the next person, I just don’t think it’s productive to focus on productivity (wink wink).

To focus on productivity alone is short-sighted and is similar to someone trying to be a good husband/wife when they do not love their partner.

What is Productivity?

Productivity is a by-product and a result of a clear vision that’s inspirational, purposeful, and meaningful. We experience natural abundant energy when these things are aligned, thus driving us to action.

To focus on productivity alone is short-sighted, and is similar to someone trying to be a good husband/boyfriend or wife/girlfriend when they do not love their partner.

Unfortunately, many (but not all) organizations focus on “productivity” because they haven’t figured out an authentic and inspiring vision. It seems to be a quicker solution to balance the books with people versus getting the business strategy right.

The Problem with Productivity

Organizations invest millions of dollars to “optimize,” “streamline,” “right-size,” or “standardize” in hopes of squeezing more “productivity” out of its organization, much like a tattered, over-squeezed orange. In the short term, cost-cutting compliance tactics or changing behaviors and habits are fine and have their place. But these things do not replace a relevant vision and a compelling business plan.

In addition to focusing on the wrong thing (i.e., productivity over vision), organizations also seem to find people a nuisance. Yes, I know this might come off a tad strong. Maybe they don’t, but actions tell a different story. Oftentimes, project goals lack prioritizing people, including relating, communicating, and connecting to its people, and so the project often loses steam.

As a former consultant, I’ve witnessed countless projects where the client’s team members did not understand the end goal or purpose of the project. They worked with consultants because they had to or their boss asked them to. But there was no real appreciation or connection between the work that they were doing and a meaningful contribution to their company.

In fact, oftentimes, I would hear things like, “Well, my boss said this project is to achieve X, but for all I know we could be working ourselves out of a job,” or “The goal of the project is X, but that’s what they said about the last project before a bunch of us were laid off or moved to another team.” Or my favorite, “I don’t know, I was going to ask you since you probably know better than me.” As a result, we would get resistant, passive-aggressive behaviors, politicking, and just a lot of time-wasting, which was costly. Although everyone was very busy, pulling long hours, and was neck-deep in meetings, objectively speaking, very little productivity was happening.  

We must treat people in the workplace more like human and less like machinery, if we want to create an environment in which people are inspired to create, work, and thrive.

How to “Fix” our Productivity Problem?

Employees typically don’t feel a genuine connection to and aren’t energized by goals simply to help companies get bigger, faster, better.  What people want to connect with are answers that address questions such as:

  • What’s the greater cause?
  • How’s the company vision going to make the planet a better place?
  • How is what we’re creating going to make the lives of our customers better?
  • Why are we doing this?
  • Why now, and what happens if we don’t?
  • Why am I part of this team?
  • How does the team value what I have to offer?
  • How does this align with my own personal values?

People want to be part of a bigger vision that inspires. People want to understand how they plug into that vision and know that the piece of work they are working on matters.

When we are inspired and touched by a greater vision than ourselves, it will energize us, it will motivate us, and it will ignite a fire underneath and within us that will challenge us to run, leap, and jump further and higher than we thought we ever could. So, if we focused on connecting to the meaning of work, everything else would have to align, including productivity.

We must treat people in the workplace more like human beings and less like machinery if we want to create an environment in which people are inspired to create, work, and thrive.

If companies do not relate to their people on a human level, they will find a few things start to happen:

  1. Burnt-out, sick and unwell employees will increase in number
  2. Qualified and purpose-driven people will leave
  3. Company performance will sadly decline

What Inspires Us Humans?

As we evolve and become more conscious individuals, consumers, investors, and citizens, we want to work for companies that care and stand for something. We want to be fans of companies that are genuinely dedicated to something real and true. We want to join and partner with companies that have a definitive and inspiring reason for existing that goes beyond just financial profit.

This seems pretty simple. But it isn’t. It would be easy if most companies had inspiring visions, but most do not. Many companies (but not all) are still hyper-focused on profit as the only bottom line. More progressive and conscious businesses and employees are appreciating multiple bottom lines that make a company successful and a great place to work. The multiple bottom lines can include, first and foremost employees’ well-being, connection, purpose, community, and the planet, to name a few.

Words matter. When we talk about “making people more productive” or “getting more out of our people,” we become obsessed with what we can take from another human being. We measure the value of someone with what they can crank out and lose sight of the more intangible values such as creativity, ideas, contribution, empathy, learning, insight, and the human connection that is vital, not only for wellness, but for meaningful work.

Behind what inspires us, moves us, frees us, energizes us, is our purpose.

In a similar vein, I often meet people who tell me that they want to be more productive, less “lazy,” and to achieve better results in their personal lives. Sometimes they even hire me to be their coach, and what I tell them is “Good! It’s fantastic that you’ve self-identified as unproductive or lazy or someone who doesn’t give a hoot or achieve the results that they want. That’s great!”

I say that not to be dramatic or sarcastic, but I am truly happy for people who pick up important signals from their higher selves.

​You see, I believe that our bodies are wise and our bodies will give us signs when we’re straying from our internal compass. The key is tuning into those cues to help us get back in alignment with our personal vision. Because behind what inspires us, moves us, frees us, and energizes us is our purpose.

The next time we catch ourselves in a moment of feeling not so “productive,” I invite all of us to examine our life’s vision and purpose, just like great companies do.

Check in with ourselves and see if we need to better define or refine our vision to light us up again.

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