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What Leaders do Wrong When Trying to Increase Employee Productivity

Published: March 3, 2020

Last Updated: February 7, 2024

  4 min read

By: Michelle Cadieux

increase employee productivity

Let's explore common productivity barriers in the workplace so you can increase employee productivity and boost your team's results.

Let me ask you this: if your car suddenly stopped working, what would you do? would you jump into solution mode immediately and head to the hardware store to buy all sorts of tools and supplies to fix the issue?

Not at all. The first thing you would do is open the hood of your car to see what's going on. You (or a trained mechanic) would try and diagnose the problem first. That’s just common sense.

But when a team is not performing up to standard, many don’t do this. Instead, they jump straight into solution mode. They start offering pizza lunches or giving impromptu pep talks, even though they're not entirely sure what's giving rise to the issue. In other words, they don't look under the proverbial hood of their team to investigate. They go straight to solutions.

Always investigate first

It's understandable; they are probably worried about not being able to meet their objectives and goals. After all, leaders have their own bosses to report to, and failure to meet expectations can result in consequences.

But if productivity is a problem on your team, why would you approach it differently than a performance problem with your car?

The first step to improving employee productivity should always be understanding the root issue. In other words, to uncover the obstacles or barriers preventing employees from attaining top productivity. Identifying the problem is the first step toward applying the correct solution.

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Common Barriers to Productivity

If you surveyed a sample of employees on their productivity, you would see patterns emerge. This would be the case for any employee, whether they are working on a factory floor or in an office.

In other words, the barriers to productivity are predictable and limited. For simplicity, we can divide these barriers into three top-line categories.

It is crucial to keep these in mind because it helps you pinpoint the nature of the obstacle. For example, is it caused by something tangible, like slow tech tools? Or is it caused by something invisible, like an employee's poor relationship with a coworker? Consequently, having more information about the precise nature of these obstacles can guide you to the best solution.


  1. Environmental 

  • Noise distractions
  • Too many notifications
  • Meeting overload
  1. Organizational

  • Unclear goals 
  • Multitasking
  • Unresponsive colleagues
  • Unclear objectives & mission
  • Missing/faulty tools
  1. Psychological 

  • Lack of communication
  • Lack of trust and respect
  • Negativity/boredom
  • Resentment

Talk To Your Team

Now that you are familiar with the different barriers to productivity, you need to have a frank and open discussion with your team. If you feel your team will only be honest on a 1:1 basis, you can hold private meetings with each team member.

To make this conversation as objective as possible, you can use the situation-behaviour-impact model of giving feedback

The goal is to express the current situation in a matter-of-fact way. In this case, your team is not meeting expectations in the area of productivity. It can be challenging to have these talks, but you can give feedback in a positive and constructive tone. The key is to come from a place of curiosity rather than judgment or blame. 

To put this into practice, you could say: 

  • "Hi, team. I've noticed that the efficiency and productivity of our team are lower than our typical standard. I'm not here to point the finger. I just want to know what is happening, so I can help us resolve any issues where I can. Are any problems, challenges, or obstacles preventing you from getting your work done recently?"

Remember: This conversation isn't about accusing but rather about seeking clarification. You want to convey with your words and demeanour that you're all on the same team.

Whatever the root of the issue, if you have an open and honest discussion with your team, you'll be sure to walk away with critical insights that will help you put the correct solutions into place.

Challenges in overcoming different barriers to productivity

When looking at the range of barriers to productivity, it's easy to see how some can be easier to overcome than others.

For example, suppose employees tell you they are having trouble with a tech tool or are overloaded with meetings. Generally, employees feel comfortable being honest about these types of “business” issues. And these logistical barriers can be simple to remove or at least minimize. 

But, when it comes to the more intangible barriers to productivity – it can be more difficult to get people talking, and by extension, solve the problem.

For instance, if it's an issue with a lack of communication or a colleague who is often slow to reply. Maybe the frustrated employee is hesitant to voice their opinion. Getting people to open up is difficult. So how to get to the root of the problem?

Pay close attention to people's behaviour. When there is a deeper problem, you will often see it come out in subtle ways people interact within their team.

For example:

  • Do your teammates make snide or sarcastic jokes at each other?
  • Do you notice team members repeatedly dropping the ball on certain tasks?
  • Do you notice team members speaking badly about each other?
  • Do you notice people struggling to take accountability and shifting blame?

All these examples of passive-aggressive communication in the workplace are sure signs of some interpersonal issues. These issues can lead to serious productivity problems, which should be addressed immediately.

Use “productivity hacks” wisely

If you go to Google and type in "how to increase employee productivity," you'll see tons of articles outlining common best practices.

Here are examples of a few:

  • Set clear goals and expectations
  • Provide the right tools and resources
  • Encourage breaks and time management
  • Foster a positive work environment
  • Offer ongoing training and development
  • Implement flexible work arrangements
  • Minimize micromanagement
  • Recognize and reward good performance

What's interesting is these productivity ideas also resemble common employee engagement tactics. It makes sense. A happier employee is a more productive employee. In other words, increasing productivity should begin with maximizing employee happiness.

In short, many of these ideas have merit and are great tactics for increasing both productivity and engagement. Yet, it's also important to remember that no two people are the same, and no two companies are the same. You can't copy-paste another company's strategies and expect them to work for your people. What helps one employee be productive might be detrimental to another's. Applying blanket best practices should be done with caution. 

The bottom line, these lists won't get you far if you don't understand the issues that are holding back your team in the first place.

Final Thoughts

Many frustrated leaders would love to flick a switch and see their employee productivity improve instantly.

Sadly, that simply isn’t realistic. Of course, certain quick tactics can provide a short-term boost in productivity. But to increase productivity in a real and last way takes time. It requires a mix of both short-term and long-term motivators. And most importantly, understanding the underlying issues that are impacting your team. Only once you have all those factors in can you take concrete action in the right direction.

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