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In my previous corporate life, one of the roles I had was a sales manager. I would regularly spend a day with each of my sales reps in turn. At the end of that day, I would always follow up by sending them a coaching letter which would usually only take me ten minutes to write. One day, as I sat behind the desk in my home office, I laboured for two long hours to produce that letter.

Not because there was anything contentious or sensitive about what I had to say, but simply because I was struggling with cognitive overload: my brain was being forced to make a decision and use more energy than it was physically capable of in that moment. Friends and family had been telling me that I wasn’t ‘fine’ for a long while, but I was convinced otherwise. I just figured that how I was feeling was all part of the unending work cycle of decision making and action taking just to meet targets in the face of information overload and ever shorter deadlines.
Which productivity are you focused on?
We are used to a particular way of measuring productivity; it’s part of what I call industrialized thinking. In that view of the world, productivity is simply about how much work you can do in a certain amount of time. It’s a logic that also says that if a job takes one person 90 days to complete, you could give it to 2 people and have it done in 45 days, or – as is more often the case – you just tell one person that they have 45 days to complete the task and expect them to figure it out for themselves.
Driving hard to just ‘get it done’ can mislead us into thinking we are operating at 100% when, in reality, our productivity may be much lower. If we put our heads in the sand and continue to treat people like robots by working them flat out and ignoring their emotional needs, productivity always suffers.
Today’s working environment is dominated by the forces of VUCA (if you don’t know what VUCA is, read my earlier article here) . For someone overwhelmed and exhausted or for someone who is struggling to find purpose and belonging, psychological safety is as important as physical safety.
And don’t get me wrong: there is no judgement here. I get it. As a leader, you have your own ‘stuff’ to deal with. It’s easy to miss the warning signs when a team member feels disconnected, especially as they are likely to have their game face on. But we can turn it all around by focussing on emotional productivity. Emotional productivity is driven by our minds, not our bodies. If your mind is exhausted and overwhelmed, it doesn’t matter what your physical capacity is: you won’t be able to deliver what is expected of you.
We have the American psychologist Abraham Maslow to thank for pointing us in the right direction. Back in the 1940s, Maslow identified a hierarchy of basic human needs which describes what motivates us and drives our behaviours. Despite being more than 70 years old, the model is still relevant today, no more so than in the business environment.
Get the basics right and the rest will follow.
Working in hierarchical environments, it is natural that your behaviour as a leader is going to be noticed and will impact your direct reports. Chip Conley, author of PEAK and Emotional Equations, makes an interesting observation about Maslow and styles of leadership: “a transactional leader is leading from the bottom of the pyramid while the transformational leader is leading from the top.” In other words, rather than falling back to the old stick and carrot approach to managing performance, do your best to ensure your employees’ basic needs are met, regardless of whatever else may happen. By providing this psychological safety, you free them up to focus on higher needs such as improving performance.
To get the ball rolling, answer these few questions.
  • Am I doing everything I can to make people feel safe in their job? If not, what specific steps could I take to do this?
  • Do people know they can give me honest feedback and speak freely, without negative consequences?
  • Does my behaviour help people think creatively, or am I adding to the chaos?
“How” is as important as “What”
Industrial productivity tracks what is getting done, and how long it takes. Emotional productivity examines how things are getting done, as well. Both are important. I’m not suggesting that you stop measuring industrial productivity. I’m simply saying that if you don’t also pay attention to the emotional aspects, you’ll find that physical productivity will drop, and you’ll have no idea why, or what to do about it.
Want to hear more about this topic? My upcoming book being released this Fall explores how culture and engagement at work translate into bottom-line profit, and how to create work environments that connect leaders and individual contributors to the organization’s aims and ethos.
Carolyn Swora
Carolyn Swora is a workplace culture architect who facilitates development in three core areas; Courage, Resilience and Belonging. Join Carolyn in a conversation via email, LinkedIn, and Instagram. Carolyn’s book, “Rules of Engagement”, is available on Amazon. You can also listen to PWE & ME, Carolyn’s Podcast.