If you haven’t yet heard the term “productivity theater,” this won’t be the last time. And even if you haven’t, you will likely recognize the behavior. My coauthor, Wayne Turmel, defines it as “engaging in behaviors that aren’t terribly productive but give the appearance of working hard.” And one survey says 83% of employees have gotten on this stage at least once in the last year. If it is happening in your organization, it is creating the exact opposite of real productivity, and requires your attention. The question is, what can we do about it?

Redefine Productivity

First and foremost, we must redefine productivity in our organizations. Most performance theater occurs because of a faulty definition. People are taking actions to look like they are working hard (“Look how busy I am, everyone!”). But working hard doesn’t mean we are being productive. Productivity is about how much is accomplished per unit of time. For example, I could cut my lawn with a pair of hand clippers and work very hard. But in the time it takes to cut a couple of square feet of grass that way, I could have mown my entire lawn. Productivity is about accomplishment, not activity.

Stop the Madness (of Tracking)

Promoted by the pandemic, managers began suffering from what Microsoft calls “productivity paranoia.” They were worried about whether people were working when they couldn’t see them. They leaned into technology with the use of keyboard trackers, cameras, and access logs, for example. The resulting message sent to team members was that they were to be at their desks, “busy working.” Instead, they should have clearly defined what successful work was, and measured that real productivity. If you want to reduce or eliminate productivity theater, turn off these tracking processes. Tell your team why you are doing it and what you really want from effective tracking. And then perhaps apologize.

Measure the Right Things

Measuring the right things starts with clear expectations of work deliverables. Once team members know what they are responsible for delivering, and how it is monitored and measured, their behaviors will change accordingly. While the term sounds a bit nefarious or deceitful, productivity theater is more often rooted in good intentions. People want to be seen as doing good work by the people that matter. When good work is properly defined, the problems associated with their theater work will be greatly reduced.

Look at the Incentives

People behave in ways that make sense based on the incentives they see. If you are seeing performance theater, you have misaligned incentives. Talk with team members about what they think is important for their success and why they see it that way. Your goal is not to judge or try to correct people’s perceptions (at first), but to understand those incentives. Those conversations will be illuminating and help you determine what you might need to change.

Productivity theater isn’t the kind of performance you would want to pay to see, yet it happens frequently. When you look at your culture objectively, you will figure out why the stage is full. That objective view will give you the starting point for eliminating that theater from your organization.

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About the Author

Kevin has spent 30 years helping organizations and leaders from over 40 countries become more effective. Inc.com has twice named him in the top 100 Leadership and Management Experts in the World. His books include Remarkable Leadership, From Bud to Boss, The Long-Distance Leader, The Long-Distance Teammate, and The Long-Distance Team.

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