· 2 min read · Features

George Osborne's given up on productivity, but you shouldn't


Poor management accounts for as much as a quarter of the productivity gap between us and other countries – here's how to tackle it

In last week’s budget chancellor George Osborne paved the way for further austerity measures when he gave up believing Britain’s poor productivity could be turned around.

Giving up on productivity and officially downgrading our already weak productivity growth predictions is a disaster. Not least because UK workers have already become so unproductive that we produce 30% less per hour than workers in France, Germany and the US.

Workers in those nations could take every Friday off and they’d still achieve more in the working week than we do in the UK. So what’s the solution?

Although there are fundamental issues around investment in new technologies and education, economists estimate that poor management accounts for as much as a quarter of the gap in productivity between us and our main rivals.

Given that we already have high employment and work the longest hours in Europe, some organisations are simply not getting the best out of staff or directing their efforts in the right way. But while the government’s given up trying to find a solution, if this is an issue for you there are three proven tactics you can adopt right now to boost productivity within your organisation.

1. Focus on strengths

One of the major ways in which UK managers unwittingly hinder productivity is a preoccupation with fixing weaknesses and bringing everyone up to the same standard using competency frameworks and the like.

The problem with focusing on the negative is that we’re actually at our most productive, successful and motivated when we focus on things we’re naturally gifted at and derive great pleasure from doing. Research underlines this, showing that appraisals linked to strengths generate a 36% improvement in performance, while emphasising weaknesses leads to a 27% decline (Corporate Leadership Council, 2005).

The simple fact is: employees excel when managers are encouraged to let them focus on doing the things they enjoy the most. Organisations that give staff the opportunity to do what they do best every day have a 30% higher probability of success on productivity measures than those that don’t. (The Strengths Focused Guide To Leadership, Mike Roarty and Kathy Toogood.)

2. Get managers to think like leaders

Years of restructuring and redundancy activity has led to flatter management structures, stripping out the layers of leadership managers once relied on for help with troubleshooting and decision-making. But instead of stepping into the void, most of today’s managers remain confused about just how much autonomy they have, causing them to distance themselves from problem projects or constantly refer things up the line instead of empowering themselves and others to succeed.

Organisations need to give managers ‘permission’ to think like leaders to shift the focus from waiting to be told what to do to holding themselves accountable for delivering results. Critical to this is explaining to managers what it means to be a great leader at your organisation and which behaviours are critical to the success of the business. Only then can you provide them with real clarity about how you want them to behave – be this determined, creative or agile. If you’re not sure what leadership behaviours managers need to exhibit don’t be surprised if they don't show them.

3. Focus on the right things

If we’re employing more people to work longer hours but still producing less, we’re either incredibly slow and inefficient at what we’re doing or we’re not focusing on the right things.

More often than not it’s a case of both. It’s concerning just how many top teams leave the goal-setting for employees up to managers, who are often one step removed from the strategic goals of the organisation themselves so that they end up setting targets and delegating tasks that have little or no relation to overall organisational objectives. They may even be counterproductive.

The upshot is that if your employees’ individual goals don’t add up to your departmental goals and your departmental goals don’t add up to your top team’s goals, you can't expect to achieve them. Instead top teams need to cascade meaningful goals down through the organisation and ensure that everyone’s efforts are being directed in meaningful ways.

Susy Roberts is founder and managing director of Hunter Roberts