By | Raja Jamalamadaka | Industry speaker | Neuroscience coach | Marshall Goldsmith awardee | Author | LinkedIn Top voice | IIT | Harvard
Some months back, I received an unusual request for help. Sandra (name changed) – the CHRO at a mid–sized organization acquired by a well-known private equity (PE) firm – was in a disturbed state. Her grouse? Her COO and the rest of the CXO’s team (CFO, CIO, CLO etc) were locked in a messy cold war that had become the talk of the office. The reason? Culture differences. The CXO’s alleged that the COO – let’s call him Tom –wasn’t serious about his work. While the remaining CXO’s worked nearly 14 hours a day – not to mention weekends – while still struggling to meet the tough acquisition business targets, Tom put in an “abysmal” seven hours – and he never worked weekends. Worse, Tom expected the same seven hours from his reports – causing excitement among them but a lot of heartburn in the teams reporting to the remaining CXO’s. The CXO’s alleged that at their levels, it was impossible to complete all the work in seven hours. Sandra was pulled in to understand the situation and “straighten” the COO.
Sandra’s investigation revealed something unusual.
1. Despite the lower work hours, Tom actually met all his targets. Counterintuitively, the remaining CXO’s struggled.
2. Tom seemed to ignore apparently important challenges. Mysteriously, the challenges got solved to the satisfaction of stakeholders.
3. Sandra also found that Tom spent the least amount of time in 1:1 meetings with his reports, while other CXO’s spent way more (“At this crucial juncture, it is important to be engage staff”, the CXO’s said). That said, employee engagement scores told a different story – Tom’s team reported the highest engagement despite the fewer hours.
How could Tom get so much accomplished while the others struggled? Sandra asked me to check Tom out from a neurological perspective. I spent a couple of hours talking to Tom for a few days trying to understand his philosophy and his brain wiring. Soon everything fell in place.
His productivity secrets?
1. Tom demarcated his office into a small “cellphone zone” and a significantly larger “cellphone-free zone” (similar to smoking and non-smoking areas.). The cellphone zones were away from his office – this meant he had to walk a fair bit to use his phone. Such an arrangement drastically reduced his cellphone usage and he gave 100% undivided attention to those who walked into his office.
a. Tom told me that the absence of phone distraction alone led to a 60% reduction in time spent in 1:1 meetings. This hugely improved his productivity.
- A collateral benefit was without the cellphone, his 100% attention ensured his staff loved his “presence” and enjoyed working for him improving their engagement.
2. His philosophy to people management was defined in two words – “listen actively”.
- He never managed people – he managed their emotions.
- His philosophy was that the simple act of actively listening to his people released their emotions. The non-emotional people were way more productive and happier than his peer teams.
3. His philosophy to problem solving could be summed up in the SAME two words “listen actively”.
- He realized that 90% of daily work problems did NOT need his attention though they came to him. In fact, he felt his reports were way more capable and eager to fix them – if he allowed them to.
- His analysis showed that negative emotions were the biggest impediment to solving problems. His intent of listening actively to his staff was NOT to suggest any solution – it was to help them release their emotions. The “emotional-baggage-free” staff became expert rational problem solvers.
- His analysis also showed that without emotions, the same challenge took 90% less time to fix compared to an emotional state. Additionally, the rework was negligible since a non-emotional state allowed his staff to analyze multiple angles before suggesting a solution. This allowed his staff to work fewer hours than their peers.
4. Tom’s strategy to hiring his top management was unique – “If I don’t get frightened with the competence of a new hire, I won’t hire”.
Hire the best else go for the next.
- Tom viewed internal insecurities of most managers as the biggest impediment to hiring the best people.
Mediocre hires as your BIGGEST productivity killers.
- “Surrounding yourself with sub-optimal reports temporarily improves your sense of job security but long term damages your and your team’s overall productivity.”
5. Tom viewed “checkbox” mindset to be another productivity killer. Most managers (and the tendency gets worse as they get senior) tend to create a laundary list of tasks and get excited ticking boxes as tasks got completed.
- They dont pause a moment to check if the checkbox item deserved to be on the list of tasks to be completed in the first place.
Productivity is the art of checking the “right” boxes, activity is all about checking the “maximum” boxes.
Tom strongly encouraged his team to jettison an “activity” mindset and instead cultivate a “productivity” mindset.
6. According to Tom, doubt is the enemy of productivity. He followed a few maxims to eliminate the detrimental effect of doubt.
- If you are in doubt whether to speak or not on ANY forum, stay silent. Likewise, if you feel a pressing urge to react, stay silent.
i. Unnecessary or reactive talk is activity. Silence is productivity.
- If you are not sure whether to fix a problem or not, it isn’t your problem. Don’t fix it.
i. If you solve the problems that aren’t yours, you will have to forego problems that are actually yours.
ii. Solving problems that others can fix is activity. Keeping away from them is productivity.
- If you are not sure whether your emotional state is optimal or not, it isn’t.
i. Anything done in this state is suboptimal and will need twice the effort to fix.
ii. You are now active, not productive.
- If you aren’t sure whether you are acting or reacting, you are reacting.
i. Reaction is activity. Action without emotions is productivity.
Tom summed it up well
Most managers are active and confuse activity with productivity. Why?
Because most managers – all the way to CXO’s – have been exceedingly well trained to handle strategy and fix rational challenges. They however have had limited exposure in handling emotional humans. That misalignment means managers spend unnecessary hours “actively” handling secondary emotions before “productively” fixing the primary business challenge.
The name of the organization and the protagonists have been changed to comply with confidentiality clauses.
Here’s my video on how to work smart and drastically improve productivity –
What are your views on activity Vs productivity? Please leave a comment in the comment box below so I can learn from your experience.