High work ethic – low productivity
Updated: Jul 18, 2021
With these five words a manager described how a colleague had changed over the past six months.
The observation was put into words during a recent management team development exercise as we discussed the challenges the organisation had been facing lately. The manager in question reasoned that although having all the right technical tools in place, the organisation lacked a frame of reference and a routine when working remotely.
So, what should we be thinking about when it comes to leadership and team dynamics in relation to people working from home? I will get to some answers shortly, but first I would like to address a phenomenon that causes some trouble: The absence of information exchange. In a normal working environment, we tend to chat to one another at the coffee machine, convey news at each other’s desks and share our thoughts over lunch. From my time when I had colleagues, I remember the luxury of being able to sit down and talk in the car on the way to an assignment. It was a window of opportunity for 30 minutes, sometimes even 45. “Have you heard anything from the customer recently? When can you check that email I sent you last week? Does Jane know that Joe is managing the personal assessment assignment?”
What do we do in the absence of such small talk? Well, we often start to speculate in the form of mind-reading, which I will discuss more in-depth in an upcoming post. For now, think of mind-reading as attributing opinions or intentions to someone and take whatever happens (and indeed what does not happen) personally. So, for example, if after a week I have still not received a reply to the email I sent you, it probably means you do not care. In the worst-case scenario, I start acting on my mind-reads as though they are true, for example by writing a follow-up email littered with exclamation marks. Or I might call our boss and complain about your lack of team spirit, or become passive aggressive and ‘forget’ to reply to emails you sent me.
To reduce the risk of mind-reads running wild and facilitate remote work you may consider a few things:
The first we discussed in the management team I mentioned above. The managers realised that it would be beneficial to reconnect with employees about their roles and re-establish consensus with regards to mission, goals, responsibilities, and mandates.
The second is to discuss the phenomenon of mind-reading. If the team gets the insight that it is a universal and unavoidable phenomenon, people realise they all are in the same boat. Given the situation with remote work, everyone receives less information and no one is intentionally obstructing the information flow. At my previous workplace with ten psychologists, you regularly could hear someone say "I have a mind-read concerning so and so, is it correct?” Reality-testing mind-reads is a bit like defusing bombs.
The third is to discuss the team’s norms. You probably already have some in place, but you might need to add some more. For example:
We aim to keep each other informed on an ongoing basis
We reality-test mind-reads instead of acting on them
We try not to take things personally
The manager I quoted at the outset was, of course, well aware that the employee's lowered productivity was due to the circumstances and the fact that the employee was worried about the health of a close relative. Let us learn from his example and concentrate on what might be restraining someone with a high work ethic from being productive, instead of mind-reading that they are not willing. And while we're at it, here's another tip that will faciliate remote work.
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