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Are You Using the Word “Productivity” Wrong?

The Story

Meet Rob. Rob works in marketing. Every now and then Rob’s boss walks around the office to check up on his employees, and to make sure everyone is on track.

Rob’s manager comes over and asks how his project is going. Rob indicates that he is a little behind schedule, but he has been hard at work. He admits that he got stuck on a few sections which held him up, but he’s been avoiding distractions to get it done. Rob’s manager nods in understanding but then says, “Let’s pick up the productivity a bit, but otherwise good work!”

As Rob’s manager walks away, Rob can’t help but feel a little irritated. He was working hard, but it appeared that his manager didn’t appreciate his work. Did his manager not hear him when he said he was avoiding distractions? Rob goes back to work, continuing at the same pace as before, only now he’s feeling underappreciated.

Why didn’t anything change?

When Rob’s manager said, “Let’s pick up the productivity a bit,” he created a situation of unclear expectations.

See, the word “productivity” is sometimes misunderstood, depending on who you ask.

Ask anyone on the street if they know what the word “productivity” means, and they will say yes, of course! If you went on and asked the person on the street to define productivity, they might give you an answer along the lines of “being productive” or “what you have when you get stuff done.”

With Rob, he believed his boss was asking him to be more focused and dedicated to his work in order to complete his work. Since he already was doing that, he didn’t know how to change his behavior.

So what does productivity mean anyway?

In the workplace, productivity is essentially a ratio of time or effort spent on work to the amount of work completed. This differs from being productive, which is simply being able to create or produce something.

Someone who spends a long time on a single project has low productivity, even if they might have high productiveness (the ability to be productive).

So Rob, who thought he was being productive by focusing and avoiding distractions, completely misunderstood his manager who was trying to tell Rob to speed things up.

This misconception occurs so often, you actually get different definitions depending on which dictionary source you use. (Even the Oxford Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definite “productivity differently.)

How is this applicable?

If the biggest cause of confusion is the definition, you could hold a meeting to go over the difference between “productivity” and “being productive.” If that fails, perhaps use a clearer way to describe what you are asking for. If someone is working slower than is acceptable, tell them in a straightforward and clear manner that they should be spending less time on a single project.

For the well-meaning employees who work slow and steady (like Rob), there are ways you can entice them to work more efficiently. Perhaps create incentives or recognize employees who increase productivity over a month and are able to sustain it. Perhaps set a goal where if employees exceed expectations, they are rewarded. This reward could be monetary, or it could be a t-shirt, plaque, or some other non-monetary gift.

What’s most important, though, is that there is clear communication between you and your employees. If there are misunderstandings, people become bitter, under-perform, and wind up becoming less productive. No amount of incentives or rewards will make an impact if the objective is misunderstood.

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