10 ways you’re making your employees less productive

Most managers think a lot about whether your employees are being as productive as you need. But many don’t think about whether they might be standing in the way of people’s productivity themselves.

Here are 10 ways you might be derailing your employees’ productivity.

1. Being a bottleneck that prevents your staff from moving work forward. Do you insist on approving every minor detail or a project when you have experienced, competent employees who could easily handle those details themselves? Or maybe you really do need to approve work, but it sits in your in-box for weeks because you’re swamped with other things (or, dare we say it, less organized than you should be). Whatever the reason, if you’re acting as a bottleneck and keeping your staff from being able to drive work forward, it’s a sign that something needs to change – either you need to give them more authority to act without your approval or you need to reallocate your time so that you’re able to get them what they need without unreasonably long delays.

2. Not truly delegating responsibilities. Too often, managers use their staffers as “helpers” to the manager, rather than giving them real ownership and responsibility. This leaves the manager bearing the burden of spotting what needs to be done and assigning the work, and leaves staff members feeling that they’re only responsible for executing the specific tasks the manager assigns and aren’t empowered to act more broadly. It’s the difference between asking your assistant to make sure there are enough pads and pens in the conference room for an upcoming meeting versus telling her that she is in charge of all logistics for the meeting. If you tell her the latter, she might notice that while there are enough pads and pens, there’s trash all over the room and the speaker phone isn’t working – and fix those things proactively. (Bonus: Most employees will be happier with broader responsibilities than just executing individual tasks.)

3. Not conveying clear expectations. If you don’t communicate clear, concrete goals for staff members’ work, and ensure you have a shared understanding of what success in each role would look like, you’re falling down on one of your most important jobs. A good test: If you and your staff member were both asked what’s most important for them to achieve this year, would your answers match? If not, chances are low that you’re going to get the level of performance you’re hoping for.

4. Not giving useful feedback. If you want employees to perform at the highest level they can, you need to give them clear and direct feedback about what they’re doing well and what they could do better. You will get better work from people by helping them develop their strengths and tackle problem areas. (And remember that feedback isn’t just for criticisms – as the old saying goes, “Praise what you want to see more of.”)

5. Not allowing people to carve out time to concentrate. Are you guilty of always stopping by for impromptu conversations rather than scheduling regular one-on-ones? Have you discouraged employees who wanted to block off quiet work periods on their calendars, telling them instead to be accessible to colleagues at all times? If so, you might be impeding your employees’ productivity. While people of course need to be accessible and you don’t want to ban spontaneous conversations, in many jobs you need to balance that against employees’ need to focus. If you’re constantly interrupting their workflow or insisting that others be allowed to, their inability to deeply focus will be reflected in your team’s output.

6. Not asking people what they need to do their jobs better. You might think that you already know what your team’s needs are – but you might be surprised by what you’d find out if you asked. Many people won’t speak up on their own if they need new software, a faster computer, or other tools to do their job – but if you ask, they’ll often tell you.

7. Not letting people telecommute when the work allows it. Guess what happens when you let people work at home when they need to? Instead of people calling out sick or taking a full day off to wait for a repair person, they often still work on those days, because they can do it from home. (And what’s more, telecommuting is a benefit that earns many employees’ loyalty.)

8. Insisting on doctor’s notes in order to take sick days. If your company requires employees to present proof of illness when they need to take a sick day, it’s time to rethink that policy. Having to go to the doctor’s office when you have a cold just so that you can get a doctor’s note to show your employer is insulting – and it often results in employees coming to work sick, when they can’t focus and can’t produce at normal levels. It also means that illnesses get spread to more employees – which means more people not working at full speed.

9. Scrimping on training. As the economy has pushed companies to try to do more than less, budgets for training and development have taken a major hit. As a result, employees are often expected to produce results without getting much (or any) training – which can lead to serious inefficiencies, as people struggle to figure out software or other key elements of their job on their own.

10. Creating a climate of fear and anxiety. Ruling through rigid control, negativity, and a climate of anxiety and fear might ensure that no one steps out of line – but it also ensures that employees won’t bring up new ideas for fear of being attacked and won’t be honest about problems – which will limit what your entire team is able to accomplish. (Moreover, very few great people with options are going to want to work for a fear-based manager.)

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase.

{ 50 comments… read them below }

  1. Jenny S.*

    You could also call this post “10 Ways You’re Causing Your Employees to Quit”. I got a new manager awhile back that fit numbers 3, 4 AND 10. I was out the door within a year when it was clear nothing was going to change.

    1. Esra*

      Pretty much! The team I just quit lost over 50% of its people in the past 6 months and did everything but #8 on the list. You couldn’t be productive if you want to. And we all really, really wanted to.

    2. Recent Diabetic*

      I am quitting my job in 3 weeks because of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. I am not joking, it is all of them TOGETHER. I would add an 11 – Clogging people’s calendars with unnecessary multiple hour long meetings on an almost daily basis.

      1. rlm*

        Ugh. I am in that situation now with the multiple hour-long meetings. What’s worse, they typically don’t end at the hour mark because the person keeps talking and keeping the meeting going.

    3. Kelly O*

      I feel like I’m writing the AAM version of “Letters to Penthouse” because I never thought it would happen to me, but this is absolutely a huge chunk of what is wrong at my current company, and why I know I won’t be here that long.

      By the way, my list includes “can never, ever be off on Mondays because of Payroll, even if it’s a holiday. Ever.” And, my personal favorite “you can stay up to four hours after your shift ends, but you can’t clock in more than six minutes early.”

      I’d add the whole “everyone just LOVES the person who did this before, who is still here, and who still has her finger in every single pie in the office and wonders why she can’t get anything done.”

  2. Joey*

    11. Barking out orders and expecting employees to follow your instructions without question. To get the most out of your employees they need to understand WHY this process, decision, or direction is best.

    1. Kelly O*

      You don’t need to know why. I said do this and that should be enough.

      Or, I told you three weeks ago while you were in the middle of something else that I wanted these six things – can’t you remember anything? Oh well, I will just have to do it all myself.

    1. Ann O'Nemity*

      Oh, I wish I could do that! But in my case it would probably hurt more than it would help. My boss is guilty of # 1 and 2, and I think it all stems from insecurity.

      1. Ruffingit*

        I think we’d all like to work at Alison’s Chocolate Teapots Inc. In over 20 years of working life, I’ve had one manager I could say was completely sane. One.

  3. Yup*

    A subset of #3 “conveying clear expectations” is HAVING clear expectations. Changing priorities like they’re tissues is a great way to waste time, grind down resources, and generate resentment.

    Also, I wonder if anyone’s done a study on the relationship between a management love of trendy business books and unproductive workplaces? I believe with all my heart and soul that there’s direct causality.

    1. Talulah*

      hhmmm I think you must be my co-worker. Trendy business books you say? I groan every time I see a new one on my bosses desk because I know what this means for us.

      Unfortunately, I see way to many traits of current management in workplace. Makes me sad……and angry.

    2. Jane Doe*

      I think changing priorities that way and not having or conveying clear expectations also makes people nervous. When management decides to postpone/cancel/change some expensive, time-consuming project, people start wondering how secure their jobs are, and that’s a good way to make people really unproductive.

      1. anon*

        It also makes it really hard to know how to prioritize … if I start working on this month’s flavor of the month, what happens when a new flavor is announced next month? I see a lot of people just ignoring the flavors as management announces them for just that reason I think — they aren’t taken seriously.

  4. Anonymous*

    -Blanket rules that are really about a single person.
    -Constantly asking that you help out a struggling employee with their work when you know they are constantly on Facebook all day.
    -Being told to email them a reminder several times and they keep asking for a reminder to deal with the issue vs. dealing with it.
    -Ignoring employees that have no issues. Clients are happy, work is good / great. Meets deadlines. No issues = no face time / no performance reviews / no raises = i am not valued, I will go elsewhere.

    Anything that basically makes the employees feel that you are not listening or not reading things they say / send to you. Do it enough times, and I end up on FB just like the lazy coworkers since you clearly aren’t paying attention to me or my work anyway.

    1. Rebecca*

      Love this. My manager treats us like a grade school classroom. One rule for everyone. Know why I can’t work from home a few days a week? Because she can’t trust everyone to work from home, and she wants to be able to bellow for us so we can run to her office and answer a question at a moment’s notice.

      My manager also scolds me for not constantly reminding her verbally and via email about issues I need her to handle. When I send too many emails, she complains that she has too many emails, and we need to talk more. When I verbally speak to her, she says “I can’t remember everything, you need to send an email”. Honestly, I feel like I’m in an alternative universe sometimes.

      I started dealing with this by doing nothing. Whatever.

  5. Jennifer*

    #5: Hahahahahahahah, that is the huge problem at my work. The entire point of the job at times is that we are “on call” for answering questions, so we are constantly being interrupted and bothered a billion times during the day. And given the cube setup, there’s no way we could get quiet/private time unless they somehow gave us laptops and let us hide in a meeting room. Putting up a sign doesn’t really work because obviously you are still there in the office to bother!

    Yesterday my coworker said we would need quiet uninterrupted time to proofread (giant document) and I was all yeah, RIGHT, that is not happening around here. My boss was debating putting up another sign, but I wouldn’t count on that working so well.

    1. KellyK*

      Wow, that’s a nightmare and a half. If the document is more important than the questions, someone really needs to be given quiet, uninterrupted time to work on it, whether that means laptops and a meeting room or taking it home to work on. If it’s not, then, they have to accept that it won’t be perfect, and that it will take twice as long.

  6. A Teacher*

    Not sending out an email or email that reiterates the same thing for the 3rd or 4th time that another supervisor already told you and sent to the company and then the department and then you get a 4th email from your direct supervisor with the EXACT same information.

    Not sending 5 demanding email within a 2 hour time span that talks about “expectations” and treats an adult like they are incompetent or about the age of 5.

  7. Sharon*

    You missed one, Alison (otherwise, it’s a great list!):

    11. Not protecting your workers from company politics. This is really rampant at large corporations, where beaurocracy takes hold and starts to drive everything. At the last large corp I worked for, some manager in the IT infrastructure department issued a mandate that all company-issued laptops would be locked down so that only IT had local admin rights. There was also the mandate that they would only install company-approved software on laptops. Both of those are sensible policies, but it fell down in execution because the company was so large that they really didn’t know what each and every little department needed to do their jobs. They configured all machines with nothing more than Office and a browser, so that when I got a new laptop it was unusable for anything other than websurfing and doing timesheets. I was a software developer and it had none of the tools I needed to do my job. The requirements to get my software added to the approved list was so onerous that I was advised not to bother. That laptop sat on my office floor for six months because I couldn’t use it. I took the problem up the management chain three levels and even at that height I was told “sorry, there’s nothing I can do”. I actually and seriously contemplated whether it was better to quit or just websurf until they fired me for lack of productivity.

  8. Rebecca*

    My manager scores 9/10 on this list. The only thing that doesn’t happen here is needing a doctor’s excuse for 1 day. If you miss 3 days, you must bring in a doctor’s note to return to work.

    Yes, I am looking elsewhere, but just happy to have a job at the time. I just try to avoid my manager at all costs.

    1. Katy*

      Sad but true in so many companies these days! Not sure what has happened but it’s become a struggle to find a decent work environment any more!

      1. Rebecca*

        I think it’s because unemployment is so high. My manager likes to point this out if we ask for raises, etc, you know – there are hundreds of people who would love to have this job, and you’re well compensated compared to someone who is unemployed. The current environment really favors employers, that’s for sure.

  9. anna*

    Or this: manager says, “meet benchmarks A, B and C and we can move you on to more responsibility and more pay.” Employee meets or exceeds benchmarks and asks for more responsibility and pay and manager says, “oh, you have a college degree, we can’t waste time and resources training you for anything else since you’ll probably be leaving soon.”

  10. Anonymous*

    This list basically covers all three managers at my last job, especially #10. My #11 would be literally telling people to their faces tht they should feel lucky to even have a job, and telling someone in a meeting in front of everyone that “I don’t want to hear anymore out of you” when that person was bringing up extremely valid reasons why a new prodedure needed some refining.

  11. Bea W*

    I worked for one place where if you called in sick, you could expect to be called at home 3 times during your shift to verify you were actually home sick. This was before cell phones. I can’t recall what happened if you missed one of the calls, since I have never fake called in sick to be somewhere else. Apparently this was a huge problem, probably because employees weren’t really given adequate paid time off, and had a hard time being able to take what little they had earned.

  12. Mel*

    Argh! This post gives me flashbacks.

    Former boss did all of this and more:
    1) Kept approvals for months, and then complained that we worked too slowly
    2) Timed bathroom breaks for salaried professionals
    3) Wouldn’t allow anyone to speak in the office. We would have to IM the person in the next cube with questions.
    4) Wrote me up for leaving the office without preapproval while I was having a miscarriage.
    5) When I asked for more work, she reprimanded me for trying to take work from other employees.
    6) Fired an employee for checking her bank balance on a work computer during lunch time.

    By the time I quit, I didn’t want to do anything for her. Most unproductive office ever.

    1. EE*

      Many of those are horrifying!

      #6 resonates with a job I once had in the pre-smartphone age in an industrial wasteland. Lunch breaks were 30 minutes long, which was fine by me since the only place to go was a petrol station.

      When my boss saw me on the Internet during my lunch break, and I explained it was my lunch break, she said “I see, but I think the internet is best checked outside the office”.

      Because I’m going to teleport to an internet cafe during my 30 minutes?

      I quit to go back to college after 2 months and felt no remorse.

  13. Jane Doe*

    This is a great list. I think what it boils down to for me is whether management is creating an environment that stifles or encourages creativity, collaboration, problem-solving, etc. If work is being stalled because I can’t get approval for the next step for something I’ve worked hard on, or I’m being treated like an assistant who is only capable of doing small parts of a project (and never seeing the end result), I won’t be motivated to think of things I can contribute and what I can improve.

    1. Esra*

      This is an excellent point. Micromanaging isn’t just annoying, it actively degrades the employee’s ability to think for themselves, be motivated, and come up with proactive solutions.

  14. Pussyfooter*

    Thanks Alison,
    I know I have some of these tendencies, but find it hard to articulate them–much less find an example of what to do instead.
    Very helpful.
    (looking forward to see how big Olive is in next photo)

  15. S from CO*

    Alison – thank you for posting this list.
    I wish I could send it to my old manager! I am just hoping that KARMA will take care of things!

  16. Ruffingit*

    6. Not asking people what they need to do their jobs better.

    The follow-up to that is asking and then actually providing what is needed. I’ve had more than one boss ask then nod their head at whatever suggestion was made, write it down and then…nothing. If you’re going to ask, take the suggestions seriously, provide what you can and provide an explanation if you can’t give what your employees believe is needed.

  17. Charlie Horse*

    How about taking things personally…You’d think managers would grow out of it but, I guess we’re all human first.

  18. EE*

    The doctor’s note thing truly is ridiculous. It costs me money to see my doctor. If I have a virus, the doctor can’t help me, I know the doctor can’t help me, and my boss should damn well know the doctor can’t help me. Bad colds are sufficiently common that you should be surprised if an employee DOESN’T call in sick with one from time to time. It’s not like they’re claiming to have dengue fever with no backup.

  19. Editor*

    There should be an additional number (given all the 11s people have listed, by now we’re up to 13 or 18 or whatever) for meetings:

    Failing to moderate and manage meetings. Good bosses are aware of the number of work-hours a meeting consumes and uses reports distributed in advance, agendas, and other techniques to keep meetings on track and efficient. Bad bosses allow too many meetings or insist on them. Bad bosses also allow meetings to be scheduled at times that are unproductive for meetings or at times when the entire department might be settled in and working hard. Good bosses are aware of the rhythm of the day’s work and try to protect productive time and extend it if possible.

    One place I worked required the entire sales force of a dozen people to meet for an hour with both supervisors at the beginning of the day and an hour at the end, which for some meant leaving the territory 40 to 60 minutes before the afternoon meeting if they were out on sales calls instead of working the phones that day — plus they’d lost time earlier in the day driving to see the clients. So 14 workers lost a minimum of two hours a day to meetings. The next boss went to a couple of meetings a week and sales immediately improved.

  20. Jessa*

    I’d like to add taking credit for your employees’ work without them being paid for that particular thing. IE it’s not your Executive Assistant who is getting paid a fortune to make you look good, but your programmer or your accountant or something. Even if its your EA there are times you should let people know that they’ve done amazing things to keep you and your business going. But I get when it’s the EA and part of their job is to make the fact that you’re lousy at grammar and stuff go away in your otherwise really pretty decent reports. That’s part of why a GOOD EA gets a LOT of money.

  21. Shuvon*

    I am currently job hunting after getting recruited to work briefly at what turned out to be a toxic job. That manager/owner scored high on this list, especially unclear expectations combined with scathing personal attacks and criticism. Ugh.

    I have made the reverse of this list to help me focus on what a healthy work environment looks like — very helpful (e.g., 1. Manager provides staff with authority to act and approves work in a timely manner.
    2. Manager delegates responsibilities and gives staff real ownership in executing their individual tasks….)

  22. AnotherEleven*

    2a. Telling your employees you’re handing over a project to them, then later asking them ninety nitpicky questions that basically boil down to “did you do this exactly the way I would have?”

    11. Telling your employees they need to get everyone to comply with company policies, then bending the rules for every customer who complains to you, then telling your employees they need to figure out how to get everyone to comply with the company policies. By this point, the really problematic customers have all learned that if they just go whine to the manager, they can get away with basically anything.

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