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Helping Employees Find a Productive State of Mind

Cornerstone Editors

Self-control drives workers to file that report, make a sales call or finish the meeting agenda, yet managers largely fail to consider its impact on worker productivity. They fret about meeting performance goals or building a product, but they ignore the motivating factors that individual employees need to deliver results.

"In our own lives self-control is a big problem — yet it is largely absent from high-level discussions about worker productivity," Sendhil Mullainathan, a professor of economics at Harvard, writes in the New York Times.

In a recent study, Mullainathan and his colleagues set out to understand workers’ self-control on the job. They studied data entry workers in India. These employees were already well motivated in their jobs: they received 2 rupees for every 100 fields of data they entered. The researchers gave the workers the option to set a target for their work. If they entered 5,000 data fields, they would maintain the same pay rate, but if they failed to meet the goal, their pay rate would be halved to 1 rupee per 100 fields.

Surprisingly many employees chose the target, saying it helped them stay productive. The option didn’t offer a better pay rate — in fact it made it possible for them to earn less, if they didn’t meet the target — but it helped them work harder, thus earning more. Mullainathan suggests that these workers craved a self-control mechanism to keep them productive. They’re looking at productivity as a state of mind, he says.

A Call for New Measurement

While data entry is a relatively easy task to measure, productivity in the knowledge economy generally lacks concrete metrics. For example, does extra time on a customer service call mean that an employee is being less productive? Or is she adding value by building stronger relationships with customers? A worker who responds to hundreds of emails all day long might feel productive, but the value of that work likely is less impactful than actually doing research or writing a report, for instance.

"In general, organizations have not truly come to grips with how to think about productivity in a knowledge economy, let alone how best to manage it," Jordan Cohen, a productivity expert with PA Consulting Group, tells Knowledge at Wharton.

Managers don’t think twice about interrupting employees for an urgent request or to call an impromptu meeting, yet we know the growing amount of workplace disruptions adversely affects workplace productivity. In a study published in the Journal of Stress Management, employees who experienced frequent interruptions reported 9 percent higher rates of exhaustion; and it takes more than 25 minutes, on average, to resume a task after being interrupted, the Wall Street Journal reports.

If managers think deeply about what individual productivity means, and how their actions play a role in it, they'll likely make decisions that won't set employees back. "How a company defines productivity will determine what infrastructure they build to measure and manage it," Cohen says. "If they don’t really question the traditional assumptions around productivity, they end up with an industrial-era notion — simply that ’more output with less input’ is better." In other words, managers today need more subjective criteria for determining productivity. For lawyers, that might mean tracking how often others cite their briefs. For engineers, it’s not how many lines of code they produce, but the quality of the solution that the code creates.

Once managers understand establish a semblance of measurement behind productivity, they’ll be better equipped to help those employees feel a sense of self-control.

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