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📈 The Rise (and Fall?) of “Productivity Paranoia”

Lately, I’ve noticed a distinct rise in conversations about, and references to, productivity paranoia. I hadn’t heard the phrase “productivity paranoia” until recently. If you’re not familiar with productivity paranoia, think of it as “an obsession with constantly monitoring and micromanaging employees, driven by the idea that they might not be working at their fullest potential.” 

Why is this even a thing? And how did we come up with a catchy name for the issue instead of calling it what it is: crap management

To put it into perspective, a study by Microsoft revealed that 85% of leaders indicated they lack confidence in their employees’ productivity. In contrast, 87% of employees believe they are working productively. Stop and think about that…

87% of employees believe they’re being productive contributors. 

85% of leaders don’t trust that their employees are being productive. 

Houston, we have a problem. 

By default, “productivity paranoia” is attributed to leaders within an organization and their lack of confidence in their own employees. The rise of the phrase is likely connected to recent shifts toward hybrid and remote work caused by the pandemic. However, the above report also indicates that, in spite of the fact that they believe in their own productivity, 88% of employees are uncertain that their performance lives up to their leaders’ expectations

That sounds like what we should be calling “productivity paranoia” — defined as managers creating unnecessary anxiety amongst their team members by propagating the unsupported assumption that, left to their own devices, employees will default to sheer laziness instead of doing their jobs.

If we’re going to talk about productivity paranoia, we should at least acknowledge that the issue cuts both ways. It isn’t difficult to see how this paranoia becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy — in fact, the data above almost guarantees that it will. 

Put simply, we’re asking leaders and employees alike to work in environments that are built upon, and continue to foster, a lack of trust. AND we’re expecting everyone to be happy and productive as they look over their shoulders. 

Of course everyone is paranoid

How can we solve productivity paranoia?

Let’s be clear, productivity paranoia shouldn’t be a thing in the first place. It is a direct result of poor leadership, often from middle management. It comes down to the ingrained leadership sensibility that employees can only be productive when they have a manager (literally) peering over their shoulder. By demonstrating a lack of trust in their team, managers are setting both themselves and their employees up for failure.

We have methods of measuring productivity across employees — KPI’s that help us determine an employee’s output and how that output compares to their peers and aligns to business goals. If managers are defining and tracking productivity KPI’s that are relevant to their business, then issues should become apparent almost immediately. A good manager communicates expectations appropriately, works with team members who don't meet or exceed those expectations, and ultimately takes responsibility for removing people who don't perform.

As an example, at Apollo 21 we track the output of our employees on a weekly basis. This isn’t based on punching a time card or tracking hours, but rather widely accepted software engineering management methodologies (like scrum and agile) that allow us to measure what’s happening across our team. We follow these metrics religiously and review them weekly amongst our leadership team so that we can recognize problems early and deal with them accordingly. 

In most cases, “dealing with” these issues begins with a conversation to understand the issue from the team member’s perspective. Did they have a particularly difficult task that took longer than expected? Did they have a personal matter to attend to that impacted their availability/productivity? Are they just plain having a crummy week? Or did we run into a misunderstanding along the hiring process that created a misalignment of expectations? And yes, we have used these metrics and conversations as a basis for removing employees when other efforts fail. 

A manager who’s paranoid about productivity isn’t doing their job. 

Fostering trust and adopting careful measurement of employee performance is the key to removing “productivity paranoia” from our collective vernacular. And it can’t happen quickly enough. By embracing trust, setting clear goals, and measuring performance effectively, we can create a work environment that is empathetic, highly performant, and lacking in unnecessary paranoia.

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