May 23, 2024, 06:27AM

The Paradox of Productivity

The most successful business leaders know you must keep shaking the jug to ensure that the cream doesn’t rise to the top.

Fast moving busy businessmen reflecting glass building 553012 24328.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

If you’re a “business leader” with half a brain—no guarantee in 2024, 1924, or even 1024 CE—you know that you can’t afford to lose easy access to your most productive sycophants, adjutants, and cat’s-paws. For the hard-working subordinate, this paradox of productivity reveals itself in ways that appear to defy common sense. My experience at a previous job illuminated this paradox. Despite consistently delivering quality work under tight deadlines, I was perceived as less busy compared to a harried, out-of-sorts colleague well-known for their apparent lack of productivity. This culminated in a surprising outcome: the colleague was promoted to a director-level role, while I was deemed too valuable in my current position to advance.

The Misconception of Busyness: The notion that being busy equates to being productive is an ingrained fallacy. In many workplaces, the appearance of busyness is often mistaken for genuine productivity. This misconception stems from the visible markers of effort: people who seem constantly preoccupied, stressed, and overwhelmed are often assumed to be working harder and, by extension, contributing more significantly to the organization's success. Conversely, those who manage their tasks efficiently and complete their work promptly are sometimes perceived as having an easier workload, despite their actual output.

In my case, the ability to complete a substantial amount of work within a given time frame wasn’t seen as a testament to efficiency and effectiveness. Instead, it was misinterpreted as evidence that I wasn’t sufficiently challenged or busy. This perception overlooked the quality and quantity of my contributions, focusing instead on the flawed metric of how busy I appeared to be.

On the other end of the spectrum, one finds my aforementioned colleague. This individual had a hard-earned reputation for doing the bare minimum, often avoiding tasks under the pretext that their time was occupied by ill-defined projects that they’d never complete, and delegating their day-to-day work to others. Despite this, they were frequently described by our superiors as being very busy, owing to their incessant, George Costanza-style claims that they simply didn't have time for additional work (and it’s true—they didn’t have time for any work). This perception created a protective shield around them, fostering an image of a burnt-out, overburdened employee.

The promotion of this colleague to a director-level role serves as an example of how perceptions can diverge from reality. Their perceived busyness, despite or—perhaps more accurately—because of a lack of tangible output, positioned them as a candidate for leadership. This move reflects a broader trend in many organizations, where the ability to navigate office politics and maintain an image of busyness outweighs actual performance and results.

My career stagnation was explained by a grizzled VP who candidly admitted that my value was seen from a tactical standpoint. "We can't lose you to leadership. That's where we can hide the nice folks who are a little slower," he remarked. His statement struck me as a critical flaw in the organizational mindset: the apparent undervaluation of tactical efficiency and the overvaluation of strategic positions filled by less productive individuals.

Being efficient and productive, it seemed to me, should ideally lead to career advancement, but in my case and many others, it resulted in a form of professional pigeonholing. The organization failed to recognize that leadership positions benefit greatly from individuals who can deliver results and inspire others to do the same. Instead, they reserved these roles for those who could play the political game and maintain the illusion of busyness, even if it meant promoting less capable individuals.

I now see the error of my ways. Back then, in the words of the idealistic terrorist (is there any other kind?) John Brown, I was “yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons.” While promoting individuals based on perceived busyness rather than actual productivity may result in less effective leadership, it can also serve a more pragmatic purpose: maintaining organizational stability. In mature organizations, the primary goal is often to keep the boat steady rather than to sail it faster. High-performing individuals, while capable of driving significant change and improvement, also pose a risk of disrupting established norms and processes. This disruption can be unsettling, and for organizations focused on stability, the potential risks may outweigh the potential benefits.

Promoting individuals who maintain the status quo, even if they’re not the most productive, can help avoid conflicts and power struggles that could destabilize the organization. These individuals are less likely to challenge existing hierarchies or push for radical changes, thus preserving the current structure and reducing the likelihood of upheaval.

Beyond the immediate goals of productivity, organizations often have other objectives that influence promotion decisions. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, for example, are believed to be critical in modern workplaces. Ensuring a diverse and inclusive leadership team can sometimes mean promoting individuals based on factors other than sheer—an unkinder soul might say “mere”—productivity. This approach can foster a more inclusive culture and provide diverse perspectives that are essential for long-term organizational stability.

Similarly, the concept of a "good fit" often serves as the deciding factor in promotions. Organizations may prioritize individuals who align well with the company culture and values, even if their productivity isn’t the highest. These individuals are seen as more likely to maintain harmony within the team and ensure smooth operations, further contributing to a stable and cohesive work environment.

Empowering highly productive individuals with leadership roles might seem like a straightforward way to drive organizational success. However, this comes with significant risks. Highly productive employees often have strong ideas and the drive to implement changes rapidly. While this can lead to impressive gains, it can also lead to resistance from other employees who may feel threatened by rapid changes.

Moreover, productive individuals may push for high standards and performance expectations that others might struggle to meet, potentially leading to burnout and decreased morale among the broader team. The push for continuous improvement and innovation can also divert focus from other essential but less dynamic areas of the business, leading to an imbalance in organizational priorities.

The paradox of productivity thus lies in the delicate balance between stability and innovation. Unlike start-ups seeking to go from “zero to one,” mature organizations must navigate this balance carefully, weighing the benefits of promoting high-performing individuals against the potential risks to organizational cohesion and stability. Promoting based on perceived busyness and cultural fit may seem counterintuitive, but it’s often the optimal strategic move to maintain a steady course.

To be sure, organizations should strive to create environments where efficiency is valued and where a certain degree of career advancement is based on real contributions rather than superficial perceptions. Yet, they must also be mindful of the need to balance innovation with stability, ensuring that minimally capable yet thoroughly “good-fit” individuals are in positions to lead and drive the organization forward. Only by resolving this paradox on the side of stability can mature organizations—think of such monolithic enterprises as Sears, GM, and JCPenney—successfully enjoy the decades of slow, sustainable “running to failure” that follow periods of early explosive growth. 


Register or Login to leave a comment