Demanding More... and More?

Leaders are ready for higher productivity in 2024—but worried about asking for it.

The post-holiday glow has faded, and teams are back on the job, focused on 2024 goals. Facing low growth projections, many leaders may want to tell people to work harder and more efficiently. They want to ask for more commitment and productivity, but they fear setting off a social-media storm. How can leaders spur employees to actually work harder in this environment?

Since the pandemic, leaders have grumbled among themselves over their inability to get people in the office, let alone to get them working with the commitment of yore. To be sure, standout employees continue to work beautifully, but on average, the US workweek continues to drop—to 34.5 hours in December, down from 35 hours in January 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While encouraging better work might be an option, experts advise that leaders let go of their dreams of long hours. “It is quite possible that a CEO today is simply not able to exhort their staff to work longer,” says business psychologist James Bywater, senior client partner at Korn Ferry.

This idea may be anathema to leaders who themselves burned the midnight oil to climb to the top. But a recent Gallup poll showed that only 12% of employees want to work full-time in the office. Experts suggest that leaders tread carefully, because asking for longer hours can not only alienate hard-working employees, but also cause further problems. “If employees follow through, and become burned-out or sick or unable to deliver, that is ultimately a bigger problem than wanting teams to work more than they’re willing to work,” says CEO whisperer Jane Stevenson, vice chair at Korn Ferry.

Experts suggest that leaders analyze their assumption that teams need to work more. Not only is some degree of projection likely at play (“That’s what I did, so they should too”), but so is attribution bias, which commonly makes one internalize others’ negative traits (“She doesn’t work enough”), but externalize one’s own (“My workload is unreasonable”). “This creates a rich and often adversarial environment,” says Bywater, in which a leader can easily simply assume that people are not behaving optimally.

The key, say experts, is messaging that steers clear of critical or inflammatory language like “lazy,” and—crucially—doesn’t complain about what’s not happening. Instead, the trick is to analyze the culture and align messaging with it. For example, if the culture centers around customer service, then the message might be about creating magical experiences for clients. “The leader’s tone has to embody the culture of the organization, especially when trying to inspire and motivate employees,” says Richard Marshall, global managing director of corporate affairs at Korn Ferry.

Fundamentally, these communications need to motivate and inspire, not criticize, say experts. Even if the leader may intend to spur more productivity, the messaging they ultimately use might not feature the word “productivity” at all, but instead connect to the organization’s purpose. Stevenson calls this “heartshare”: a sense, shared by leaders and employees, of mutual commitment to a larger purpose. “If you gain heartshare,” she says, “you have a big incremental advantage.”

Experts say there’s no need to send out a memo to the whole company. Marshall suggests convening an employee task force to try out your messaging: Is it the right tone? Is it the right timing? “You can pressure-test your actions,” he says, as well as assess employee sentiment and stressors. Leaders might find it necessary to put this messaging through multiple iterations. “Words matter, tone matters, context matters,” he says.


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