how to increase productivity without decreasing morale

Lots of methods managers use to increase productivity end up inadvertently lowering morale. For example, managers who discourage people from taking time off usually in the run end up with burned out, less productive employees who are making more mistakes. And managers who have an autocratic, top-down, “just get it down” delegation style often end up realizing that because they didn’t take the time to talk through the project on the front-end, they lose time later on having to send work back to be redone. And of course, simply ordering people to raise their productivity without giving them the tools to do it usually results in stressed out, frustrated staff.

But you can increase productivity without taking a hit to team morale at the same time. Here’s how.

1. Build a great team. It sounds obvious – of course as a manager you should build a great team – but while its productivity payoff are obvious, you might not have considered its effect on morale. Great people like to work with other great people – and tend to get frustrated when team members aren’t pulling their weight. If you become known for building a great, high performing staff, other high performers are going to want to work with you. Nothing raises morale and quality of life at work like having fantastic coworkers does. (Well, raises come close.)

2. Fire low performers. This is a corollary to #1. If you’re going to have a team of high performers, it follows that you’re going to need to sometimes let people go. Replacing low performers with strong workers won’t just pay off in the results your team gets (although that will certainly happen); it’ll also raise the morale of the high performers on your team, who will appreciate that you’re holding standards high and addressing problems forthrightly. (Make sure you do it a fair and compassionate way, of course.)

3. Explain the “why” behind assignments, decisions, and new processes. You’re probably busy, and it can be incredibly tempting to just ask people to do work without taking the time to explain the context behind it – why the assignment needs to be done, what the background is on it, and why this approach was chosen rather than another. When you have a to-do list that’s cracking under its own weight, taking the time to talk someone through these details can feel like a low priority. But doing it will pay off – people will be better equipped to spot ways to improve the work and head off problems, which they might not be able to do at all if they don’t have the same context you have. Plus, employees who are in the loop like this will be more invested and engaged in their work, which generally leads to people being happier with their jobs. (The same goes for explaining new policies, processes, and decisions as well.)

4. Give people stretch assignments – and coach them through them. If you’re like most managers, you’ve probably thought, “I wish I had someone on my team who could handle X for me.” Even if no one on your staff is perfectly equipped for X, whatever it may be, coaching someone to learn to do new types of work will help you get more done in the long-run and good employees will appreciate being challenged and increasing their skills. (Of course, in doing this, you need to coach them through it – you shouldn’t just give someone a stretch assignment and abandon them to figure it out on their own.)

{ 31 comments… read them below }

      1. Gene*

        I sorta like the thought of my boss telling me to get down; but I won’t get funky for him.

  1. YandO*

    A sure way to decrease productivity and morale is to set unrealistic goals and then base commission/bonuses on those goals.

    1. Bailey*

      This! I had a supervisor do this once even after being presented with data to the contrary. They blatantly ignored the facts and (perhaps purposely) set me up for failure.

    2. Corporate slave (for now)*

      And of course raise the goal at the end of the year just in case someone accidentally might hit it. My favorite goal here is “above chain average”, meaning they want every store to have their metrics above the average score of the chain. Don’t think about that one too much, your head will explode will all the layers of WTF.

    3. YandO*

      As part of my compensation package I was promised commission on revenue after we hit our “goal”. They lied to me about their previous performance and made it seem completely unrealistic.

      Keeping track of our revenue is part of my job. Six months in I realized that the goal is not just unrealistic, it’s not even in the same universe of possibilities. When I brought this up to my boss/owner it turned out he was completely ignorant about the numbers to begin with, but his response boiled down to “We should aim high! you never know will happen”. After we had the best year they have ever had we were still far and far and far from the goal.

      Needless to say, my originally super enthusiastic and “can do” attitude turned into “I will do what I need to do well, but I will not go above and beyond ever again”. Also, I immediately started planning my exist strategy.

      Don’t do that to your staff. Ever.

    4. Nashira*

      Yeeeep. Like my manager’s new goal that no one should ever call out sick, which is 100% feasible, and not at all aimed at penalizing everyone due to one employee’s use of intermittent FMLA, right? My merit increase got shanked because I was too sick to work on a couple days, so I called out. To say that my morale is ruined, and I’m pretty pissed, is an understatement.

      Especially because if we do come in when sick, and there’s an error in our work due to it, we get in even more trouble… and lose even more money…

  2. Sharon*

    Also you missed the giant land mine that is performance appraisals. I can’t think of a faster way to destroy morale than the many ways I’ve experienced performance evaluations done wrong. Everything from being the benefactor of blatant favoritism (I could do no wrong, and yes just as I expected, my time to do wrong came eventually and HARD), to ridiculous statistical quotas. In fact, the way I now keep my morale up through performance reviews is to take them with a huge grain of salt and just a box-checking exercise. I know that’s cynical and extremely sad, but it is what it was made for me over a 25+ year career in a wide range of companies!

  3. A Reader*

    And for heaven’s sake, don’t use stack ranking! It makes everyone hate each other.

    1. BeenThere*

      Yes! I love my current employer except for the fact they do forced ranking :/ I can see the impact on morale.

      Fortunately I came out very high in the ranking at my recent review. However this is only because I know how to play the game after being in a few different companies. The sad fact is I would get more work done if I didn’t have to play the forced rank strategy game.

  4. Anonymous Educator*

    Can I add a #5?

    Involve your employees in the goal-setting. If there are increased quotas or quantitative goals for the new year, don’t just have management arbitrarily throw out a number to the underlings. Involve the people actually working for those goals and/or commissions to look at the statistics and try to come up with a reasonable increase based on past years and what they can expect for this year. This happened at a company I used to work at, and it was very effective in not getting morale down.

    1. TeapotCounsel*

      Concur with #5. People are more enthused about activities in which they had a say.

      1. Jessa*

        Oh and corollary – if you do make new goals and you then find out that because of people skills, man hours available, or process necessity, that it can NEVER be reached, adjust the darned goal. And apologise to the team (okay that’s extra but it’d be nice.)

        Don’t fail a whole team or division or whatever just because nobody has the guts to say you cannot make 100 teapots an hour with a machine that is physically capable of only making 80. Or with 4 people, when you can only make 20 teapots a person. Someone has to stand up and say “the machine can’t do that,” or “we need 5 people,” or you’re going to have to spend 100 man hours teaching people to be able to do this and by the way the repetitive motion workers comp claims are gonna go through the roof if you demand it forever, but short term we can probably pull it off.

        And especially do not punish people when “we can’t make 100 teapots” is because client or outside source will not give us the stuff to make 100 teapots. If your chocolate supplier can only supply enough tempered chocolate for 80 teapots an hour, this is not the fault of the team making teapots. If the client will not give you the die for their logo and you have to make logos by hand, this is not the fault of the team either.

        1. VintageLydia USA*

          This was a huge issue at my old store. They want customer service scores at a certain level, but would only give us the hours to staff on average 3-4 people during the after work rush. Usually that translated to one or two people on the floor with everyone else on register. This was a store with 3 distinct departments, plus the manager on duty (one of the 4 people scheduled) having other responsibilities that pulled them off the floor right as the rush started that absolutely could not be delayed.

          Yeah, our customer service scores sucked because we had no one who could do customer service.

        2. SevenSixOne*

          Argh, yes. At my job, one of our goals is to complete teapot lids in five minutes or less,with a bonus to any employee with a monthly average completion time of three minutes or less.

          The department average completion time is about 10 minutes, but a 15+ minute completion time isn’t unusual. If you’ve got an especially difficult, ornate lid, it may take an hour or more to complete, which can torch any hope of meeting the goal for the month. It’s definitely possible to make a few lids a day in 3-5 minutes when conditions are ideal, but that pace just isn’t sustainable all month. In the two years I’ve been here, only one person (out of ~30) has gotten the bonus for the <3 minute monthly average. The whole department has tried and tried to make the goal something more attainable, like eight minutes, but upper management won't even consider it.

          1. BeenThere*

            I bet everyone cherry picks the easy lids so the more complex ones never get done or could be done sooner if there was a reward for it.

      2. YandO*

        What Jessa said. And if you don’t update the goals, at least don’t yell, get angry, and/or defensive because unrealistic goals are not being reached.

  5. AnotherAlison*

    Argh, #1 and #2 . . .my dept. added 7 new people in one position (this includes me- I was the first) and 4 in another last fall, which was a fairly large expansion for our group.

    Because of the manager’s background, he took a chance on a few people with different backgrounds. He’s taken saucer engineers and sugar bowl sales guys and tried to put them into teapot sales and project management. I think it could be a good team in the long run, but right now, I’m swamped because I have a teapot background while people with different backgrounds are bored because they have nothing to do.

    To top it off, said manager has now moved up a rung on the ladder. I’m excited about our new direct manager, but she has a lot to figure out about how these people can be utilized.

  6. Senor Poncho*

    Oh I am feelin this topic lately. Boss is big on the “just get it done” sort of thing and doesn’t like responding to questions on what he actually, specifically, would like to be done. And I’m getting new tasks dumped on me at a pretty unsustainable pace on top of that.

    Yeeeeeeesh good timing.

    1. Mallory Janis Ian*

      Ahahahaha. No, your boss should not call staff ” the help”. I laugh because sometimes at my old university job there would be receptions at which administrators and faculty would sometimes have sitdown dinners with the school’s benefactors while staff, being on duty, would just grab a quick bite while congregating on chairs in a corner; we would jokingly refer to ourselves as “the help”, but none of the faculty ever did.

  7. PoorDecisions101*

    We’ve had multiple team meetings with our new director who constantly says if you don’t like it – there’s the door. This at the same time where he’s supposedly motivating us to achieve unrealistic targets which we have 3 months to reach and we’re less than half way. Then he asks for feedback and no-one says anything, but you can see from people’s faces what they’re actually thinking.

    Maybe the department wouldn’t be such a basket case and wpuld have been much closer to meeting our targets if there hadn’t been 4 re-orgs and 1 round of layoffs in the past 6 months, with more to come.

  8. Slippy*

    I think the article missed one. “Offer more money/incentives for more results”. I know that is not a popular answer but a lot of these “boost productivity” articles leave out rewarding employees.

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