Five ways to destroy your team's productivity - Michelle Gibbings

A man on his mobile phone in front of an illustration that says Productivity

When you are seeking to make a change, improve a process, or restructure your organisation, it’s likely that one of your outcomes is to increase productivity.

More often than not, productivity is seen as desirable, and it’s something that governments, organisations, leaders and individuals strive to attain.

And yet, there are many actions leaders can take that inadvertently negatively impact their team’s productivity.

Here’s a perfect example from a leader I was working with (and their story is shared with permission).

The senior leader was well respected and known for their laser-like focus on productivity. They took great pride in their ability to streamline processes and maximise efficiency.

However, as the team continued to deliver on the productivity targets, the leader lost sight of the bigger picture. So engrossed in achieving the numerical targets and hitting the numbers, their focus became myopic, and the team started to feel disengaged and disconnected. Initially, the productivity goals were still met, but as morale dropped, so did the quality of the work delivered. In time, productivity slagged. It was at that point the leader came to me for support.

The leader came to appreciate that their singular focus on productivity had come at the cost of the team’s well-being and engagement, output quality and had impacts beyond the numbers.

In fact, the single pursuit of productivity became a productivity killer.

But that’s not the only example of productivity killers that exist. Here are my top five issues. What would you add to this list?

Issue 1 – Exhibiting poor leadership
Whether it’s a micromanaging boss, a leader who communicates poorly or a leader who creates uncertainty and a lack of clarity, these are all elements that feed into a poor or toxic culture.

A leader who micromanages their employees can quickly damage productivity. Micromanagement sends a message that the leader doesn’t trust their employees, which is demotivating and disengaging. Employees who feel micromanaged may also spend more time reporting to their leader than working on tasks, leading to wasted time and energy.

When employees are unclear about goals or expectations, they become unsure of their priorities, causing confusion, missed deadlines, and lower productivity.

Similarly, ineffective communication can lead to misunderstandings, mistakes, missed opportunities and reduced morale.

All these factors feed into the team and organisation’s culture. Employees who feel unsupported, undervalued, or disrespected lose motivation; over time, a toxic culture can materialise.

Each of these elements can negatively impact productivity, and when you bring them together, you have the perfect damaging productivity storm.

Issue 2 – Keeping bad leaders in place
The US Based National Bureau of Economic Research conducted research into the productivity impacts of bosses. Their study, released in 2012, found that replacing a boss in the lower 10% of boss quality with one in the upper 10% of boss quality increases a team’s total output.

How much by? The output increases by more than you would get if you added one additional team member to a nine-person team.

If you want your team’s productivity to increase and need to get more done, start by looking at how you are performing and how the leaders in your teams are performing.

Issue 3 – Ignoring Restructuring’s Downsides
Companies restructure to cut costs, improve efficiency, and ultimately uplift profitability. However, research shows there are also potential short-term costs, and some of the benefits don’t materialise.

Harvard Business School researchers, Sandra Sucher, Professor of Management and Marilyn Morgan Westner, Research Associate, share a series of findings in this article.


  • Research from over two decades of profitability studies shows that most firms don’t see improvements in their profitability or other financial metrics after layoffs.
  • Downsizing doesn’t (in general) offer immediate financial improvements, and the company underperforms in the first two years after the restructure (as compared with other firms that didn’t downsize).

Another study by Professor of Work and Organisation Psychology at Stockholm University, Magnus Sverke and colleagues revealed that layoffs have a detrimental impact on the employees who remain. Often referred to as ‘survivor guilt’, those employees experienced a decline in key performance indicators: 41% for job satisfaction, 36% for organisational commitment, and 20% for performance.

These results aren’t surprising. Restructuring disrupts workflow and processes, which can lead to confusion and inefficiency. Employees may need to learn new systems or how to work with new team members. And with fewer resources, they may worry about workload and the ability to complete the work.

At the same time, valuable institutional knowledge and experience may have walked out the door. Employees may also feel that the company is not looking out for their best interests, eroding trust in its leaders, particularly when the restructuring is badly managed.

The negative effects don’t just appear in the aftermath. The impacts start from the time of the announcement.

Restructuring causes uncertainty. When employees are unsure about their future roles it’s stressful and anxiety rises, and they feel demotivated and distracted. Employees can spend time jockeying for positions and gossiping about what’s happening, rather than focusing on their work.

Issue 4 – Instituting online surveillance
Many organisations implemented employee monitoring programs during the pandemic following the increased prevalence of working from home. These surveillance programs, installed on the employee’s computer, could assess things like time spent on the web and at your keyboard, the number of daily keystrokes, and capture screenshots.

Of course, this approach doesn’t measure output and takes a very transactional approach to a person’s role.

Not surprisingly, employee monitoring negatively impacts productivity.

Karen Levy, Associate Professor at Cornell University, studies the employee impact of such monitoring devices. Quoted in The Guardian she highlights the negative productivity impacts of this approach. She advises that if you want creative and out-of-the-box thinking, it’s less likely to happen when employees are monitored.

Similarly, a recent study by Chase Thiel, Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Wyoming and colleagues found that monitoring employees can, at times, lead to increased employee deviance due to a sense of disempowerment.

Employee monitoring is a very old-fashioned way of managing. It’s saying because I can’t see you, I don’t trust you in your job, so I will monitor what you do. People don’t like being watched, and this approach erodes trust. You’re far better off setting performance targets, coaching your team members and empowering them to get on with the job they’re hired for.

Issue Five – Only focusing on the stars
Teams are more important than ever, and research shows that teams are producing more work than individuals.

Yet, many organisational talent programs and reward and recognition schemes focus on finding and supporting the ‘stars’. The ‘stars’ get the exciting assignments and the bulk of the organisation’s learning and development.

In a fascinating conversation, Wharton University Professor, Adam Grant and author, Malcolm Gladwell dissect the issue of star players and teams. They argue (and I agree) that the future of work is more about the team.

Referencing teams in different contexts (sports, hospitals and financial services), Malcolm Gladwell provides examples of how success depends on the people you surround yourself with.

This means that if you want to elevate effectiveness you need to focus on uplifting those team members who need the support, rather than primarily focusing your attention on the top players.

It’s easy to think that being productive is all about the ‘doing’, but as the author, Gretchen Rubin, reminds us, we also need to broaden our scope of what we see as productive. She writes, “I always had the uncomfortable feeling that if I wasn’t sitting in front of a computer typing, I was wasting my time – but I pushed myself to take a wider view of what was ‘productive.’ Time spent with my family and friends was never wasted.”

The question for you to ponder this week is what productivity killers do you have in place at work?

Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®

Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert, the award-winning author of three books, and a global keynote speaker. She’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated.

Publication: | |