How to Motivate Employees: How Productive Is Your Team?

How to Motivate Employees: How Productive Is Your Team?


Jasmine Henry


If your organization is facing productivity issues, it may not be a question of how to motivate employees. It could be strategic misalignment or a business case for learning and development. More than half of employees lack clarity around performance goals, according to Mercer. Before you add resources to a team, learn to identify the leaks in your productivity.

Understand the work

Lean management promotes the "Gemba walk"—the practice of observing employees at work. Actively listening to the people closest to the work can inform leadership what really happens at all levels of the organization. This practice can give eye-opening results about daily tasks that aren't listed in position descriptions and work that isn't adding value. Maybe employees are spending five hours a week on daily task reports that their supervisors rarely read. Observation and learning can resolve misalignment between employees, skills and tasks. Learning about organizational and team goals can focus employees. Supervisory staff can streamline workload assignments according to individual strengths with L&D insights.

Evaluate time estimates

According to the Project Management Institute, just 52% of organizational projects finish within time estimates. Inaccurate time estimates are the cause of 25% of failed initiatives. Employees may have a much different understanding of the scope of work than managers. Ask your employees how long tasks really take and use techniques like three-point estimates for accuracy. This is the average of the following three data points:

  • Best case scenario
  • Worst case scenario
  • Average day estimate

Understand real job descriptions

Carter Cast of Kellogg School believes that taking on too much is a key cause of professional failure. In an interview with Quartz, he notes that people often have more responsibilities on paper than anyone can reasonably accomplish. When expectations are unclear, employees may be drowning. Even worse, employees may be spinning their wheels if they don't understand which tasks are strategically important. Ask your employees what they're really working on to understand true scope of responsibility.

Is the problem motivational or resourceful?

Employee burnout and operational inefficiencies can appear the same at the top. Boardroom key performance indicators don't always show the employee's perspective. Before you add resources, understand the root cause of poor productivity. Is it burnout, operational inefficiency or a lack of clarity? A recent Gallup study found several key causes of workplace burnout:

  • Unmanageable workload
  • Lack of role clarity
  • Lack of communication and manager support
  • Unreasonable time pressure

If discussions with employees reveal people are doing a lot of strategically important work, it could be a sign that you need to hire additional talent or pursue workforce restructuring. If employees are working on tasks that aren't mission-critical or there are significantly different time estimates among staff, you may have a strong business case for strategic alignment or L&D investments. At one U.S.-based academic medical institution, a newly hired CEO realized employees were passionate about the mission, but they didn't understand how their work contributed. According to Mercer, the institution created a goal-alignment initiative centered on L&D to help employees understand how their work contributed to the greater strategy. Leaders worked to create clear goals and measures for teams and employees.

Invest strategically

Talent resources aren't a silver bullet. Leaders need to understand the root cause of productivity issues before deciding to hire or how to motivate employees. By talking to employees and getting closer to the work, it's possible to identify where a learning and training strategy fits. Educating employees on your strategic mission or time management can clarify goals and create focus in scattered teams.

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