The p-myth

Here's a quick task.  Open up your favourite search engine (is there more than one?) and type in 'performance management' or 'employee productivity' (or both).  It won't take you long to notice the tsunami of conflicting information out there already.  You will also notice a myriad of solutions, technologies and methods to address and improve employee performance and productivity.

Can they all be right at the same time?  Possibly not.  But how is it possible to determine which will work, and which are simply marketing hype?

First, a little help from a few experts.

The first expert we are going to call on is already known to many - best-selling Author Daniel Goleman who writes about Emotional Intelligence, Leadership, Focus (attention) and more recently 'A Force For Good'. 

He contributed an article to LinkedIn back in 2013 about 'flow' that I would like to draw your attention to (where we feel in command of what we do, do it effortlessly, and perform at our best).  You can read the full Daniel Goleman article here.

“Flow” was discovered by researchers at the University of Chicago. They asked a wide range of people, “Tell us about a time you outdid yourself – you performed at your peak.” No matter who answered – ballerinas, chess champs, surgeons – they all described the flow state. One of flow’s best features: it feels great.

In other words, when people do things that are either important or interesting to them, they have the energy they need to perform better.

The second friend that doesn't need an introduction to many is Author Daniel Pink.  Apart from being Al Gore's speech writer back in the day, he has also clocked up a decent TED Talk titled The Puzzle of Motivation (still in the all-time top 20) and a number of books about human behaviour.  "There is a disconnect between what science knows, and what business does" is one of my all-time favourite lines from this talk, in which he also cites research with a puzzling finding - paying people more money can actually lead to a decrease in their performance.

In other words, motivation, the type that is sustainable, comes from within.

Performance requires energy

I spoke with Sharon Keating, founder of The Juicy Effect who specialises in helping individuals and organisations to move into a highly functioning state of flow:

"There are some tasks that we would only do if paid a lot of money, and others that we will do for free, even if perceived to be more difficult.  Why is that?  Because when people like doing something that is around the right level of challenge, they are tapping into an energy source that is infinitely more powerful than one's willpower and determination.  Yes these are admirable qualities, but they aren't sustainable in the long term".

From a productivity perspective, effort and time-spent is not necessarily an indicator of effectiveness.

The paradox of Management

Yoda got it right.  Do or do not, there is no try.  If I asked you to pick up a pen, who would have to do it?  If you were my boss and you asked me to do something, regardless of how you asked, the only person who can actually do it is me, right?.  In other words, whilst managers can certainly influence performance and behaviour, it is ultimately up to the individual.  Like that horse that keeps being led to water, it can't be made to drink.  

And herein lies the p-myth (where p stands for performance and/or productivity).   When it comes to the performance of people in the workplace (which leads to productivity and profit), it is less about motivating someone and more about helping people to find their motivation. The paradox for Managers is that all performance is actually self performance.  Carrot and stick approaches are sometimes more costly than the performance they influence.  And over time, carrots and sticks simply need to keep getting bigger if they are to have the same affect.

A secret weapon in the fight for increased productivity

Productivity is about effectiveness.   To be effective, we humans need energy, which is plentiful when it comes from within.  Encouraging people to explore what interests them at work whilst also furthering the Company's cause is an opportunity to create this energy.  A workplace leader who is willing to put faith in these principles of human motivation will be rewarded, but it takes guts.  This isn't how textbooks instruct us to improve productivity.

Believing you can make anyone do anything they don't want to is simply a myth.  Often, the easiest way to make a horse drink is to first find one that wants to.  But first, one must listen, really listen, to what the horse needs or wants to do.  This is a far more effective way of improving productivity in the long term (in my humble opinion).

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About the author:

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Jason Buchanan is the general manager for insights and innovation of Optimum Consulting Group, a trusted and leading HR consultancy firm in Australia. He is the brain behind Optimum Direct, a web portal of the best HR tools and software for small business. He is interested in finding solutions on how companies can continue to grow without destroying the things that are important to them (employees, customers, suppliers, reputation etc). 

Jason Buchanan