The Productivity-Trust Paradox
What Leaders and Organizations Misunderstand About Productivity
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Productivity and Trust
If you’ve been reading the business news for the past year, chances are you’ve seen and heard the following word very often: productivity
As the tides in the economy and business environment have changed for many industries and organizations, leaders of companies have been uttering phrases like “being laser focused,” “efficient,” “doing more with less,” and other derivatives focused on productivity. In fact, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg even declared 2023 The year of efficiency for Meta.
The thinking goes, when times are tough, we need to hunker down, grind and figure out how to ride this out, and in most cases, that is true - Difficult times do require focus and making sure that you have good habits.
Furthermore, when times are good, it’s much easier to say yes to that project or initiative that sounds nice, or to approve that budget request that is a “nice to have” but not a need to have - that’s what happens when you’re in times of abundance versus times of scarcity.
So far, most leaders’ responses to fostering productivity have come in some form of mandating that people return to the office to become more productive, or installing tracking software to measure employee productivity. But it turns out, this might not actually lead to productivity increases, according to some new research from Slack, and IC4P.
In their newest quarterly poll of 10,000 desk workers, Slack found that feeling trusted in the workplace has the greatest impact on employee productivity.
In Slack’s study, they found that employees who feel trusted report higher scores of focus, productivity and overall satisfaction with work (see image below)
On the flip side, employees who didn’t feel trusted reported:
2.3x higher stress and anxiety levels
2.1x worse access to relevant people, files and resources at work
4.2x lower sense of belonging
To be sure, this is all self-reported data, but even if you want to critically evaluate this data, here’s a quick thought exercise: Imagine working for a manager who trusted you to do your work and imagine a manager who didn’t: what conditions do you think would enable you to report higher scores of focus, productivity, and overall satisfaction?
Finally, employees who feel they are trusted also report that they are significantly more likely (1.3x) to say they put in more effort at work. They’re also more likely (1.2x) to say they are willing to go above and beyond than those who don’t feel trusted at work. Organizational psychologists dub this discretionary effort, which is “where individuals give more than is expected or required from them for the benefit of the organization.”
This to me, is where it gets interesting - when done right (and not abused) discretionary effort is what what I would hypothesize could drive greater productivity. This is when you decide to take on that extra project to help out a cross-functional teammate, spend extra time onboarding a new colleague because you want to help them learn the culture and the job, or take on a side project outside of your core job because you were excited about making a difference for some customers.
It’s much harder to inspire discretionary effort when there isn’t any trust, and it’s much harder to do this after layoffs re-orgs, budget cuts, and office mandates.
In their research, the I4CP found that 64% of the companies they interviewed mandated some kind of RTO policy and cited productivity as one of the main business objectives for why they wanted employees to return to the office.
Unfortunately, their analysis also found that this decision was either “weakly or negatively” correlated with overall performance and productivity.
Additionally, Using their own proprietary model which distinguishes high performing from low performing organizations, they also found that trust was the main differentiator, as respondents from high performing companies strongly agreed with trust statements by a factor of 3.5 to 11x over low-performing companies.
They go on to add:
Productivity improvement is not about a mandated policy or magic technology. Instead, it’s primarily influenced by creating an environment where trust is pervasive throughout the organization.
As it turns out, unilateral trust is one of the most critical ingredients to creating a productive workforce.
The throughline through all of this is that it turns out that your employees will feel more productive when you trust them to do their work, and when you try to force things on them, like productivity tracking software, and mandates to return to the office, they don’t trust you or your company and naturally resist them, and that shows up in metrics like employee engagement, retention and overall productivity.
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The Productivity-Trust Paradox: What’s Going Wrong?
So where are leaders going wrong, or why aren’t we seeing the productivity results we want even if we are indexing on making decisions in the name of being productive?
I think there are three plausible reasons for this:
1.We don’t know what productivity is or how to measure it
An interesting thing about the whole conversation around productivity is that for as many articles and as much ink that has been spilled on the topic, there is very little that is written on how leaders and organizations A) define productivity, B) measure it and C) ensure employees are aware of it. When writing this piece, I went around digging for some research and it turns out that while there aren’t many articles or resources on this topic, nor are there leaders who are openly talking about it, there are some articles and research on just how hard it is to effectively define and measure knowledge worker productivity.
But to illustrate the point: a thought experiment, I encourage you to ask 5 people that you work with how they define & measure productivity, and then ask your manager the same question and see how similar or different the responses are.
If you cannot get to an aligned answer, can’t come up with a definition of how to measure it, how can you tell if what you are doing is actually working? And if it’s not aligned for the 6 of you, imagine what that is like for the rest of your organization.
And if that type of work seems difficult and amorphous, if you’re a leader it’s probably just a lot easier to say “do more with less and go back to the office for the culture…”
2. We don’t understand how to build trust
The Edelman trust barometer measures levels of trust in governments, businesses, organizations, and media around the world. In its 2023 report, it found that public trust in pretty much everything continues to be low and on the decline. 40% trust they’ll be better off in 5 years (a 10pt decline) and only 30% would help a neighbor they disagreed with. And in the workplace, Gallup reports that only 21% of U.S. employees strongly agree that they trust the leadership of their organization
The natural response would be to say “well we should just build trust,” and while that is true, I think what’s at the root here is that we misunderstand how to go about building trust, at the organizational, leader, and employee level.
Joe Folkman, the Organizational Psychologist and other of The Trust Trifecta has studied trust in leaders and organizations for over 4 decades. In his research, Folkman found that in many ways, employee and leader trust is in fact contagious.
“I compiled a dataset of 25,248 matching peers who had evaluated each other on how much they were trusted. If a peer was rated in the bottom 10% on their trust ratings, their average rating of another peer was, on average, at the 41st percentile or nine points below average.
In other words, If I am not trusted, I am likely to trust you less. If other peers were highly trusted in the top 10%, they rated their peers, on average, at the 63rd percentile or 13 points above average.In other words, if you trust me, I am likely to trust you also.
This research reinforces that if your peers do not trust you, you tend to not trust them. What can happen is that one mistrusted individual quickly bleeds into a new circle of never-ending mistrust that spreads faster than you realize.
What Folkman highlights is a counterintuitive approach to building trust: We typically think of trust as something that we give to someone else when they prove they are trustworthy. But to actually build trust, we need to demonstrate to others that we trust them.
This is also why, even in the name of “business metrics” like productivity, tracking software or mandating employees back to the office shows a lack of distrust, and is often met with disdain.
So if you believe in the data from Slack and I4CP, the next step is to focus on actually taking actions and making decisions that either build trust, or demonstrate that you trust your employees.
3. We don’t create conditions that enable productivity
A third cause stems from the fact that we don’t actually enable productivity to happen. Turns out, telling people to go to the office, firing a bunch of people and expecting them to do more with less, or turning on productivity software doesn’t actually drive efficiency or productivity, just like throwing a bunch of money on a marketing campaign doesn’t necessarily mean more sales of your products. Both of those things can happen, but you actually need to create conditions for it.
Peter Drucker, one of the more influential thinkers of management in his book Innovation And Entrepreneurship, covered a lot of ground on the topic of knowledge worker productivity. In his book, Drucker listed six conditions that he believed enabled productivity. According to the HR Exchange they are:
Knowledge worker productivity demands that we ask the question: "What is the task?"
It demands that we impose responsibility for their productivity on the individual knowledge worker themselves. Knowledge workers have to manage themselves. They have to have autonomy.
Continuing innovation has to be part of the work, the task and the responsibility of knowledge workers.
Knowledge work requires continuous learning on the part of the knowledge worker, but equally continuous teaching on the part of the knowledge worker (to facilitate the sharing of best practices).
Productivity of the knowledge worker is not—at least not primarily—a matter of quantity of output. Quality is at least as important.
Knowledge worker productivity requires that knowledge workers are both seen and treated as an "asset" rather than a "cost." It requires that knowledge workers want to work for the organization in preference to all other opportunities.
There’s a lot in there to unpack, and it probably deserves its own article, but my takeaway from his thinking is that there is a glaring gap between wanting to drive productivity and making sure that employees have what they need in order to actually make that happen inside an organization.
I don’t have a clear answer for all of this, but on an individual employee level, I would suggest the following
Ask yourself, what does it mean for me to be productive? How do I measure productivity and how does that impact my organization?
How does trust impact my productivity? To what degree do I trust my organization, and to what extent do I engender trust with my peers?
What are the most “productive” things I could be doing in my job that would lead to better outcomes?
On the leader level, I would suggest answering these questions:
If you’re entering a conversation around employee productivity, it’s important to ask A) how are we defining and how are we measuring it?
For the first point, if you’re using productivity as a reason to bring your employees into the office, ask the question about how specifically the office will create conditions that enable the outcomes you want from productivity
If you still want to bring people into the office in the name of productivity, ask yourself, to what extent will we engender the trust that employees need in order to empower them to be productive?
That’s all for now, thanks for reading!
Note: if you come across examples of how companies are creating conditions for their people to be productive and engaged or have thoughts on how to measure this, I would love to learn from you about them! Send me a note or shoot me a link to an article you found.
If you’re looking for some help for your learning and development, leadership development or professional development for this year, I’d love to work with you: Here is how I might be able to assist:
Team Trainings & Professional Development: Happy to facilitate training or professional development opportunity for your team & organization - common topics include: career development, influence without authority, effective relationship building, and stakeholder management
Support Your Offsites & Meetings: Speak or facilitate at your team’s offsite. Need a guide to facilitate or speak at an upcoming offsite, QBR or all hands? Happy to engage here.
Leadership & Learning Programs: Formal training and leadership development in your company, such as new manager or new leader training, or skill-based programs.
Feel free to contact me directly for more details!
Have a great week!