Gaining Competitive Advantage Through Employee Productivity

by Linda Gravett, Ph.D., SPHR

It’s time to walk away from the thinking of the last century in terms of enhancing the productivity of employees!  In the 20th century, the Theory X style was all too prevalent.  I sum up that approach as, “do it my way because I’m the boss.”  This clearly doesn’t work with many employees, especially Generations X and Y, the youngest employees in the workplace.  Organizations that thrive over the next decade will do so based on their ability to leverage their employees’ talents.

In this article, I’ll share some concrete ideas about how to get employees involved and engaged by developing a workplace environment that sustains peoples’ energy.

A couple of years ago, I worked with a bakery chain that supplied baked goods for grocery stores across the country.  In one of the bakeries, the supervisory staff often complained that employees responsible for maintaining yeast levels in one of the brew tanks didn’t monitor the level frequently enough, so the tank regularly went dry.  When this occurred, a new “brew” had to be made and this took time and cost money.  Instead of blaming the employees for just being irresponsible or lazy, I asked for their ideas and input on ways to maintain the brew at appropriate levels.  After an afternoon of brainstorming, the employees recommended that the bakery spend $100 to install a site glass at the bottom of the brew tanks.  This would prevent employees from climbing a shaky and sometimes slippery ladder to get to the top of the tank.  Within one month after installation, hundreds of dollars (and frustration) were saved because the employees could easily monitor the brew levels by simply walking up to the tank and glancing at the site glass.  When employees are included in developing solutions instead of being considered “the problem”, they’re willing to contribute their ideas.

I’ve learned that there are some motivational myths still imbedded in organizational cultures across the U.S.   When supervisors try to get employees engaged and motivated using these methods, they won’t get the results they hope for!  Some of these myths include:

1)                 More Pay = Higher Productivity.

Pay alone doesn’t encourage long-term productivity.  If employees don’t respect their supervisors, can’t work well with their co-workers, or find the work environment unacceptable, no amount of pay will sustain a high level of quality work.

2)                 Higher Goals are More Motivating.

Goals can certainly challenge and motivate employees, if the goals are realistic.  There’s a limit, however, beyond which goals can actually demotivate employees.  My husband was a sales rep for a few years, and he found himself in one organization in which the Sales Director set the sales quotas for each of the sales reps.  The quota for my husband’s territory was extremely high, and when he questioned the feasibility of actually achieving these goals the Sales Director said, “but you have a large territory – three big states.”  The Sales Director wasn’t open to hearing that the states in question were not highly populated by companies that bought the type of equipment the company manufactured.  After working in this unrealistic environment for a year, my husband left the company and started his own organization!

3)                 Job Satisfaction = Quality Work.

An employee can be very happy with the workplace and coworkers.  From a social standpoint, a job may meet an employee’s needs.  If the employee doesn’t have the right skills and abilities to get the job done, however, there won’t be a quality result.

4)                 A Work Group Must Be Supervised To Be Productive.

Peer pressure from others in the group who are willing and able to provide a quality product or service is much more effective than any supervisory pressure.

5)                 There is One Best Way to Motivate Employees.

There’s no “magic bullet” that encourages and motivates each and every employee.  Some employees like constant feedback from the boss; some don’t.  Some employees are primarily interested in salary and benefits; some aren’t.  Employees can be motivated by one factor early in their career and other factors as they move through their career.

Given the above myths, you may be wondering, what does motivate employees?!  Several researchers besides myself have interviewed employees across the country, and here are some of our findings:

  • Employees seek collaboration.  They want some guidance in terms of the results required and expectations in terms of success criteria…and then the opportunity to provide their own suggestions and input about the best way to accomplish the desired results.
  • Employees seek personal and professional growth.  The “contract” between employees and employers is no longer the promise of life-long employment.  Employees do want, however, to receive opportunities to learn skills they can take with them as they move through their career.
  • Employees seek a balance between work and personal life.  If they can telecommute three days a week and get the work accomplished and meet expectations, why should they commute daily to an office?  If they can flex hours and work four 10-hour days…and meet expectations, why shouldn’t they?
  • Employees seek respect:  respect as an individual who has hopes, dreams, and aspirations; respect as an individual with experience and unique expertise; respect as an individual with perspectives and insights.

There is definitely an investment to be made if organizations want to develop employees and a workplace that motivates and encourages productivity.  I believe there’s a return on that investment that surpasses the cost.  Employees who are well trained and educated about the business and their role in achieving the organization’s mission contribute to streamlining processes and systems.  Who better than someone actually doing a job on a daily basis to recommend ways to improve the work process?  If employees are provided with training on problem solving and process improvement techniques such as Force Field Analysis and Affinity Diagramming, the result will be more efficient and effective systems.  If employees are encouraged to make decisions that affect customer satisfaction, customer retention can be positively affected. 

As you explore ways to keep your workforce engaged and productive, please consider this “WAM” model developed by organizational consultant Jill Shuller.

Employees must have willingness, ability, and the means to do their job effectively.  They can be willing and eager to do a great job, but they must also have the skills and abilities to do the work, as well as tools and resources.  All three ingredients are essential for engaged, productive employees.

Dr. Gravett and Ms. Throckmorton are co-authors of the recently published book, Bridging the Generation Gap, a well researched book about how to recruit, develop, and retain people in all generations of today’s workplace.  The book is available on and through Barnes and Noble bookstores.  Contact Linda or Robin for any of the instruments mentioned in this article at: or

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