It is Not Just About the Leader: How Executives Can Make Their Teams More Productive

Updated: 15 Feb, 2022 | Bill Peatman

Most leadership productivity tips are about how individual leaders can be more productive using systems like Getting Things Done or Timeboxing.

Leadership productivity is not just about the leader. Leaders that invest solely in personal productivity can make their teams less productive by making themselves the center of the workload ecosystem. Those are the findings of a review of productivity studies that culminated in the Leadership Productivity Model, published in the Journal of Applied Leadership and Management.

"Looking at surveys about leadership performance, it can be assumed that the current development activities, mostly some kind of group leadership training, have dramatically failed," said Christoph Desjardins, a researcher at Germany's University of Applied Sciences.

Why do leadership training initiatives fail?

"One reason is the instant learning approach, which wrongly assumes that a one-time training leads to sustainable behavioral changes," Desjardins said. "The other reason might be that the leadership concepts that are taught are too high level (What to do?) and do not give clear practical directions for productive leadership performance (How to do it?)."

The "how" to lead often stops with the leaders themselves.

Leaders Focus on Themselves, not their Teams.

"As a leader is a subject to constant pressure, she/he tries to optimize his own work productivity," Desjardins said. This focus and other types of behavior to reduce the leader's workload reduces interaction time with reports. Other productivity-dampening behaviors include:

  • Delegating to others without assessing whether employees are ready for the responsibilities or providing any training resources.

  • Scheduling meetings around the leader's schedule, disrupting employee's schedules and productivity.

  • Lack of regularly spending time with employees to ensure they have the information and support they need to be productive.

"Productivity means that a leader has responsibility for the work productivity of his team and causes changes of this productivity by their performance," Desjardins said. "To increase work productivity, leaders need to consider their productivity as well as the productivity of their team."

The Leadership Productivity Model

Desjardins and his colleagues took their learnings from leadership productivity studies to develop the Leadership Productivity Model—a blueprint for increased team productivity that based on the following equation:

  • The productivity of a leader = the leader's individual productivity + the productivity of all the leader's team

Successful leaders and teams focus on tasks in three categories:

1. Goal Orientation

  • Documented Goal Definitions—the entire team must establish and own goals.

  • Goal Clarification—goals should be revisited and updated as conditions change.

  • Process Acceptance—leaders and their employees should agree on achieving goals and creating a standard definition of success.

  • Results Acceptance—leaders must accept results that spring from shared goal definitions, clarifications, and process acceptance.

The attitude and the behavior of leaders make a dramatic difference in Goal Orientation. Leaders must empower employees to own their role in defining and achieving goals when the leader's attitude is that of a superior subject matter expert. "This leads not only to the denial of work results but also to a continuous interference with the goal achievement process of an employee."

The lack of process and results acceptance leads to more unproductive work when leaders arbitrarily move the goalposts and redefine success. Unfortunately, research by Gallup found that just 41 percent of U.S. employees strongly agree that they know what their company stands for. Only 22 percent strongly agree the leaders in their organization have a clear direction.

2. Support

Too many leaders do not spend time with their teams to work on Goal Orientation. "It is no longer sufficient to empower employees by a goal-oriented leadership performance," Desjardins found.

"As motivating goals are defined as being above their current skill level, and employees cannot fully control their work environment, they need the support of their leaders."

Support consists of four leadership tasks:

  • Interaction—an open-door policy is different from Interaction, Desjardins said. An open-door approach puts the onus for communication on employees, which is not leadership. Leaders should have regular face-to-face meetings with direct reports.

  • Information—Interaction must be purposeful, designed to give employees the resources--Information--they need to achieve goals.

  • Feedback—Without Feedback, how will employees know if they have achieved their assigned goals? Positive and constructive critical input guides current and future work performance.

  • Coaching—hand-in-hand with Feedback is Coaching. When providing Feedback, leaders must coach employees to improve performance and continue to reach or exceed goals.

"Employees with a clear sense of purpose can make mission-driven decisions about when to say 'no' and when to say 'yes, to priorities," Gallup said. The need for clear priorities is a clear challenge for leaders to interact, inform, provide feedback, and coach their teams.

3. Time Optimization

As mentioned above, if leaders are only optimizing their own time, team productivity will suffer. Besides a clear Goal Orientation and Support of reports, productive leaders help maximize the efficiency of their teams in reaching their individual and collective goals. The Leadership Productivity Model breaks Time Optimization into three functions:

  • Workload Optimization—productive leaders are clear about the time constraints of a team member when assigning new tasks. But too many leaders tend to drive their priorities based on the whim of their superiors which results in the unreflective delegation (dumping) of newly ordered tasks to their teams, disrupting productivity.

  • Scheduling—leaders should organize schedules around the best Time Optimization for all team members, not just the leader. When leaders disrespect employee workflows by scheduling, canceling, and rescheduling meetings around their own needs, employees lose trust and confidence in them, and productivity breaks down.

  • Meeting Optimization—leaders and employees complain about unnecessary meetings that waste time and about those that go on forever. Employees spend 6-8 hours a week, and leaders spend 24-36 hours (about three-four workdays) a week in meetings. Desjardins' research found that less than half of meetings are effective, citing unfocused agendas and too much time spent on material that could be communicated asynchronously (without a meeting). Leaders need to drive effective plans and strong facilitation to enhance team productivity.

Correlation of Tasks to Effective Leadership

Among all the researchers' studies, Goal Clarification and shared Information are the leadership tasks that had the highest correction with total team productivity. What is clear from the Leadership Productivity Model is that productive leaders are intentional about goal setting, accessible to employees, and responsive to their reports' feedback and time needs.

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About the Author: Bill is Prialto's senior content marketing manager and writes about the future of work and how businesses can be more productive and successful. His work has appeared in the World Economic Forum Agenda blog and CIO magazine.

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