who’s to blame for the decline in employee productivity?

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Point the finger at whomever you choose—a generation, a cultural divide, or even a current mindset. It’s true. A recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows worker productivity is falling. And, many leaders are confused about what to do about it.

A recent conversation we had with a senior manager who expressed confusion, exposed a perfect example. The manager told us about one of her employees. “Sam comes into work every day determined to be productive,” she told us. “He has for the last three years. He’s typically the first in the office and the last to leave. And, he’s busy the whole day. In fact, his coworkers always invite him to join them for a coffee. Sam typically declines. He doesn’t take breaks, he skips unnecessary meetings, and he even takes lunch at his desk. Day in and day out, Sam’s consistency never fails. He never misses a deadline, and diligently completes every task. On paper, Sam is perfect.”

The manager paused as she told us about Sam. “But, his work is always the same,” she said. “He doesn’t push boundaries.”

Sam’s story is a glaring example of why the panic over the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ report showing productivity growing slower today than it has in the past may be largely misplaced. Productivity, as defined in economic terms as efficiency, delivering work in a time and energy efficient manner, is something that employers often seek to encourage. But as a leader or a manager, would you want an entire team made up of individuals like Sam? A team that doesn’t communicate, cooperate, ideate, or spend time brainstorming, just for the sake of efficiency? Probably not.

Productivity in today’s business world means something new. It’s not focused on just zero-defect proficiency. It’s not focused on just perfectly managed minutes of the day. Productivity in today’s world must focus on adaptation, innovation, and forward progress.

No, you don’t want everyone in your company to be like Sam because a too-heavy emphasis on efficiency suffocates creativity, innovation, and progress. With Sam’s thinking, Apple would have never created the ipod, auto manufacturers wouldn’t be introducing hybrid or alternative energy cars, and oodles of other products, processes, and services from other industries wouldn’t exist. Without the evolution and re-invention that creativity brings, teams and companies stagnate and even die. Just ask the cellular giants who were put out of business because they couldn’t keep up with the rise of the touchscreen smartphone.

Instead of worrying about the slow growth of worker productivity today as compared to ten, or even twenty years ago, focus instead on building a culture that actually empowers your employees to create, innovate, and deliver a difference.

Global O.C. Tanner research shows that leaders around the world are no longer looking for breakneck efficiency, but instead for employees who do really great work—employees whose work goes beyond on-time completion and current initiatives. Leaders are looking for people who are less concerned about being perfect, and more concerned about improving outcomes.

Point the finger at whomever you choose—a generation, a cultural divide, or even a current mindset. It’s true. A recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows worker productivity is falling. And, many leaders are confused about what to do about it.

A recent conversation we had with a senior manager who expressed confusion, exposed a perfect example. The manager told us about one of her employees. “Sam comes into work every day determined to be productive,” she told us. “He has for the last three years. He’s typically the first in the office and the last to leave. And, he’s busy the whole day. In fact, his coworkers always invite him to join them for a coffee. Sam typically declines. He doesn’t take breaks, he skips unnecessary meetings, and he even takes lunch at his desk. Day in and day out, Sam’s consistency never fails. He never misses a deadline, and diligently completes every task. On paper, Sam is perfect.”

The manager paused as she told us about Sam. “But, his work is always the same,” she said. “He doesn’t push boundaries.”

Sam’s story is a glaring example of why the panic over the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ report showing productivity growing slower today than it has in the past may be largely misplaced. Productivity, as defined in economic terms as efficiency, delivering work in a time and energy efficient manner, is something that employers often seek to encourage. But as a leader or a manager, would you want an entire team made up of individuals like Sam? A team that doesn’t communicate, cooperate, ideate or spend time brainstorming, just for the sake of efficiency? Probably not.

Productivity in today’s business world means something new. It’s not focused on just zero-defect proficiency. It’s not focused on just perfectly managed minutes of the day. Productivity in today’s world must focus on adaptation, innovation and forward progress.

No, you don’t want everyone in your company to be like Sam because a too-heavy emphasis on efficiency suffocates creativity, innovation and progress. With Sam’s thinking, Apple would have never created the iPod, auto manufacturers wouldn’t be introducing hybrid or alternative energy cars, and oodles of other products, processes and services from other industries wouldn’t exist. Without the evolution and re-invention that creativity brings, teams and companies stagnate and even die. Just ask the cellular giants who were put out of business because they couldn’t keep up with the rise of the touchscreen smartphone.

Instead of worrying about the slow growth of worker productivity today as compared to 10, or even 20 years ago, focus instead on building a culture that actually empowers your employees to create, innovate, and deliver a difference.

Global O.C. Tanner research shows that leaders around the world are no longer looking for breakneck efficiency, but instead for employees who do really great work—employees whose work goes beyond on-time completion and current initiatives. Leaders are looking for people who are less concerned about being perfect, and more concerned about improving outcomes.

How can you empower your workforce to go beyond expectations and produce innovative, difference-making solutions for your customers?

The O.C. Tanner Great Work Study looked at over 1.7 million cases of great work worldwide, and found that the skills that deliver such work are actually the opposite of the governing principles of Sam’s isolated, efficient workday. For example, 88% of great work starts with an employee asking an inquisitive question. The types of questions that Sam doesn’t stop to ask, such as “Why don’t we …?” or “Should we try …? or “How can we improve on …?” are often the catalysts for industry-changing ideas. But hyper-efficient employees don’t have time to stop and ideate. Furthermore, 72% of great work ideas succeed because the employee speaks to many people about their solution, and incorporates diverse knowledge and viewpoints into the design. Isolating yourself prevents contact with your team and your outer circle—and staying in your cubicle all day also hampers your ability to see the problem for yourself, and gain firsthand knowledge of the issue at hand, another great work skill. Discover the full list of great work skills to decide for yourself whether Sam, the hyper-efficient employee, seems likely to engage in any of them. (He does not).

Of course, efficiency has its place and is necessary to some extent in the workplace—especially in certain industries. Deadlines exist for a reason. Initiative goals must be met. But panicking over the stagnant growth of employee productivity is not an appropriate response. After all, the U.S. Bureau of Labor’s statistic that employee productivity only grew .3% a year over the last five years could actually mean that people are spending less time blindly completing tasks and more time questioning, thinking, and collaborating. Just think about how many new advances have happened in the past five years. We shouldn’t be blaming anyone for a decline in productivity, but appreciating people for an increase in great work and results.

Empowering great work throughout your organization will actually empower a different type of productivity. But it won’t be blind efficiency, completing tasks quickly and without question. Instead, it will be productivity aimed at the true goal of 21st century companies: making a difference for customers, delivering new and innovative solutions, and creating a culture that strengthens teams, boosting organizational success for years to come.

Oh, here’s one final thought. Ironically, guys like Sam might be the best place to start if you’re looking for ideas to solve problems and create differences. Our hunch is that Sam can tell you where the roadblocks, hurdles, hold-ups exist—so you can apply some innovative thinking to remove them.

This post was originally published on Forbes.

By david sturt and todd nordstrom
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