How to Increase Employee Productivity: The Science of Making Work Happen

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Most businesses I talk to would like to figure out healthy ways to grow.  And in almost all of those businesses, that requires people (or employees).  It may simply require greater capabilities amongst current employees, or it may require adding more employees.  In either situation, it makes sense to design the organization so that each person within it can reach peak performance.  And eliciting peak performance from employees is the result of two things: training and motivation.  As Andy Grove says, “A manager generally has two ways to raise the level of individual performance of his subordinates: by increasing motivation, the desire of each person to do his job well, and by increasing individual capability, which is where training comes in.” 

Training is best accomplished through the concept of Deliberate Practice: practicing specific skills again and again over many, many years in an environment where immediate feedback is available.  And these skills are often practiced right at the failure line, meaning there is a ~50% chance of failure for the particular task practiced.

An important aspect of Deliberate Practice is Feedback Loops.  Providing task-relevant feedback is critical to get and sustain a high level of performance from the members of a business team.  Feedback loops can also work to increase the competitive spirit amongst colleagues.  Establishing the rules and ways for employees to measure themselves (through metrics) motivates performance.

Motivation is best accomplished through an understanding of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Motivation is something that comes from within, so all an employer can do is create an environment in which motivated people can excel.  I agree with Andy Grove on this, who says that motivation (and what makes people perform) relies heavily on Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  According to Maslow, there is a succession of needs that humans naturally seek to satisfy.  The first three are physiological, safety/security, and social.  These three will motivate people to show up for work.  The final two are esteem and self-actualization (the idea that what you can be, you must be), and these two will make people perform once they’re at work.  So in order to maintain a high degree of motivation, you just simply have to keep some needs unsatisfied at all times.  Grove gives a detailed account of how this has worked at Intel in High Output Management.

With motivation, we also have to be aware of how Cognitive Misjudgment can impact performance.  The two most important forms of cognitive misjudgment to consider are:

  • Deprival-Superreaction Tendency:  Losses hurt much more than gains seem to help.  So although the existence of benefits is rarely a dominant source of employee motivation, removing benefits will absolutely have a significant impact on motivation.
  • Liking/Loving Tendency: humans naturally come to like and love being liked and loved.  So, people want to be part of a group.  But people don’t just want to be part of any group, they want to belong to a group whose members have something in common with them.  Team and group dynamics will absolutely impact motivation.

It’s also important to understand the inherent inefficiencies that can be created through organizational structure.  A corollary to Metcalfe’s Law is that the efficiency of a team is approximately the inverse of the square of the number of members in the team.  In other words, inefficiency increases along a logarithmic scale for each additional member you add to a team.  So be super careful in creating large teams, and know that creating smaller teams will help with employee productivity.

While we’re discussing organizational structure, keep in mind Information Theory.  Information Theory has a law that any additional relay in a communications system halves the “message” and doubles the “noise.”  So each additional layer of management that a communication has to pass through has a negative compounding effect on the quality of that communication.  In other words, don’t add needless layers of management to an organization – it will reduce employee productivity.

And finally, understand how Oscillations can impact employee productivity.  An oscillation is essentially a repetitive variation around a central value.  These can be physical, biological, or societal.  I’m mainly interested in the biological aspects of oscillations, specifically circadian and ultradian rhythms.  Our bodies go through natural cycles: circadian deals with the 24 hour cycle, ultradian deals with 90-120 minute cycles.  And there are others as well.  The point is that we can’t stamp employees with an identical cycle.  Everyone is likely to be slightly different, with energy peaking at different times for different people.  Understanding this will help us understand employee productivity (or lack of it).

Pushing employees past natural cycles is one of the prime causes of Diminishing Returns.  Peak performance isn’t something that can be sustained indefinitely.  It has obvious limits.  Good employers work within these limits.

Good employers also create environments that invite employees to achieve peak performance through focusing on training and motivation.