Contributed Column

The Manager's Corner

by Emily Morrow

Why some employees are underproductive ... and what to do about it

Some employees hit the ground running: They make their way through work efficiently, like a hot knife through butter, keeping customers and colleagues happy, getting great results. But other employees, although technically very skilled, are underproductive, struggle to meet expectations, and flounder about. What can be done to enhance their productivity?

The wheel-spinners. Some employees have difficulty getting traction on a project, and when they do get stuck, spend unnecessary time on distractions. They struggle to identify, in a practical, not academic, way what their clients/customers want to accomplish. I suggest they ask themselves what practical, achievable outcomes the customer wants and what’s needed to achieve those, and set clear goals for proceeding. Then I hold them accountable for their success.

Too many trees or too many forests. By naturally focusing on the big picture context, some employees know what they want to achieve but can’t see how they are going to get there. Others see the details of what they need to do but can’t put those into a meaningful context. Highly productive employees focus simultaneously on the necessary details and the bigger context.

I identify the individual’s natural preference for detail or big picture, and then provide a sample piece of work, giving the employee the opportunity to practice addressing both to experience success doing so. We then reflect on what was learned in the process.

Fear of failure; lack of self-confidence. Despite being smart and capable, some employees procrastinate, overwork files, create self-inflicted time pressures, and feel chronically incompetent. When employees experience a lack of confidence, a colleague or consultant can assist by having a conversation about what causes those feelings and what can be done to address them. Reassurance and acknowledging how common such feelings are helps. Blaming never helps.

Perfectionism. Some employees micromanage, delegate poorly, and believe no one else can do as good a job as they can while seeking unachievable perfection. You can remind them that while excellence is possible, perfection is usually unattainable. They can benefit from understanding that, over time and with more experience, their anxieties about achieving perfection will naturally diminish.

Red herrings. Some employees have never met a distraction they didn’t like and want to get to know better, including other people’s problems or interesting, but fruitless, professional pursuits. Whatever the modality, the outcome is the same: wasted time and energy.

Because they struggle to focus and bring closure to their work, I suggest they set realistic and achievable goals for themselves and identify what happens when they become distracted. What red flags will alert them to the problem so they can control it? How do they want to respond to these, and what will be the benefits of doing so?

Poor delegation. Optimal delegation involves putting together a great team you can work with, investing in those individuals, and delegating appropriate work to them in an appropriate way. Employees who don’t delegate well may work hard but achieve less. If an employee does not delegate well when needed for his/her success, I suggest some instruction on how to do so and a commitment to making work style changes.

Unfortunately, there is neither a “one size fits all” reason why some employees are underproductive nor a single remedy. If you supervise an underproductive employee, I suggest patience. Focus on identifying bad habits and replacing them with better approaches and combining praise and accountability. If you are underproductive, I suggest honesty, realism, and getting the assistance you need to address whatever it is that ails you. •

Emily Morrow, JD ( of Shelburne and Auckland, New Zealand, provides tailored consulting services to business owners, professional practice firms, executives and HR personnel.

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