When Working Harder is not Smarter

“We are being pushed to our physical and psychological limits because we are under such acute time pressure. We’re being driven out of our minds with the stress of speed. Everyone understands this on a basic level and complains about it. No one defends it as healthy or sustainable. But we seem to be helpless to address it”

Peter Whybrow in American Mania

The numbers are in. In American business the hours employees spend at the office have gone up.  So, with an increase in the number of hours worked each year, Americans must be more productive than ever, right? Wrong! According to the US Department of Labor-Bureau of Labor Statistics there was only a slight increase in productivity in the last few decades. And the productivity increase has been attributed to advances in technology, especially the internet as well as the fact that business is doing more with less.

Nonetheless, American business still operates under the belief that: “The more hours employees work, the more productive they are.” In addition, as we will see, business also (falsely) assumes that: “The faster employees work, the more they accomplish,” and “The more employees are paid, the more motivated they are to be productive.”

Based on the increase in productivity in relation to the significant increase in hours worked, we may conclude—at least on this point—that we were wrong on what makes employees productive. Now what? Certainly not push harder. Unfortunately, that’s what corporate culture is continuing to do. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. It’s no wonder that employees are feeling pressure.

Consider a typical employee’s work situation. He or she grinds out twelve-hour days, with up to two-hour commutes, and less than three weeks vacation per year. Moreover, with the advent electronic devices and social networking capabilities, the distinction between personal and business time has become blurred. How many people do you see calling work or sending text messages while they’re taking a walk or sitting at a restaurant? How often have you heard people being called  at parties or ball games? Employees are now on an electronic leash to the office making it impossible to relax from work or be fully present in their personal relationships.

We may conclude from all this that employees are heading for burnout. So where do we go from here? How can we restore employees so they feel inspired rather than used up? First, we need to question our beliefs about productivity. Next, we need to look deeper to discover what really motivates employees to be productive. Finally, we need to know how an employees’ deeper needs relate to the quality of the work they produce.

Consider the belief “The more hours employees work the more productive they are.” It is common knowledge that most people who are rested and healthy can work at optimal levels for six to seven hours a day. Occasionally, in a burst of energy or inspiration, employees can perform optimally for an additional two or three hours. Then they need to rest.

Employees also need to have a life outside of work. It may seem a surprise to learn that many employees would forgo a salary increase (with a longer work day) for time off for themselves and their family. A study conducted by the International Labor Organization concluded that employees “would happily accept lower incomes in exchange for working fewer hours.”

If working longer hours is not the answer to increased productivity, then what about working faster? This belief was challenged by psychologist Guy Claxton in his book

Claxton summarized research which strongly indicates that some problems are better solved by slower paced, intuitive thinking which originates from the unconscious mind rather than the fast-paced, analytical, “meet-the-deadline” thinking with which we are all more familiar. This finding flies in the face of prevailing business practices which demand fast, logical thinking as the way to solve business problems. Contrary to popular belief, at times we need to learn how to slow down our thinking rather than speed it up.  This is especially true, Claxton argues, for the development of complex and original ideas.

The last belief that pay is the chief motivator for productivity has also been challenged. For example, Alfie Kohn in his book, Punished by Rewards (1993) reviewed over thirty years of research which examined whether better employee performance follows from higher pay. Overall, the research indicated that pay was not the primary factor in productivity. Interestingly, many countries like Japan and Germany who do not reward individual performance with pay increases often outpace the USA in productivity. In considering financial rewards for increases in work productivity, Kohn concludes:

“Pay people generously and equitably. Do your best to make sure they don’t feel exploited. Then do everything in your power to help them put money out of their minds.”

Why? Because when people were surveyed on what they are looking for in a job they consistently ranked not pay but interest in the job, or the sheer pleasure of working, and the opportunity for collaboration through group decision making well above financial compensation. So, if employees are not more productive when they work longer, do not accomplish more when they work faster, and are not primarily motivated to work longer with financial incentives, what drives people to work at their best?

First, it needs to be emphasized that productivity, obviously, is a good thing. If companies were not productive, as measured by a healthy financial base, we would all be out of work. However, that said, productivity should not be the only way of viewing our relationship to work. Consider the words of Henry Ford:

“Business must be run for a profit….else it will die. But when anyone tries to run a business solely for a profit…then also the business must die, for it no longer has a reason for existence.”

What is the reason for the existence of a business if it is not just for profit? The answer is to be found within the true assets of every business, its people, and their deeper needs—the need to be not simply productive, but fruitful.

The heart of fruitfulness is that one’s work flows from the essence of oneself to the essence of the other. The quality of the relationship assumes, what philosopher Martin Buber calls, an I-thou relationship rather than an I-it relationship: “I do this because of who I am in my inner self and I show reverence for who you are in your essence (I-thou).” In contrast, the attitude of the I-it relationship is “I do this to gain something from you, regardless of your needs.” Once we focus on the notion of fruitfulness, and all that it entails, we begin to think differently about what it means to optimize employee performance as well as the nature of our work relationships. But how does fruitfulness differ from productivity?

The ‘fruit’ in fruitfulness refers to a product that flows from the life or essence of a tree. Productivity, in contrast, often comes from outside the person, from the employer trying to coax or even manipulate better performance with some quid pro quo arrangement; for example, “Work more or harder and I’ll pay you more.” In the end, we don’t motivate people; rather, they have to find it within themselves. In short, people are more motivated by a good job that does the following: expands one’s mind and skills (content/creativity), involves individual initiative (choice), provides the chance to work on a team committed to the same task (collaboration), has value to others or the world (meaning), and sparks the desire to make a difference in the world (contribution).

As human beings, we have a deep need to express our uniqueness and talents in the work we do.  The ancient philosophers viewed three aspects of persons that need to be expressed in their work: nous (mind), psyche (the instincts and emotions), and pneuma (spirit).

According to this model, fruitful people are those who effectively engage  all three levels in their work. Like the wheels of a car needing to be in balance to insure a smooth ride, these three aspects of being need to be in balance for healthy living and fruitful work.

Let’s consider each of these three aspects of fruitfulness, in turn:

The nous (mind) is the rational part of our humanity. It is that part of our being that is inspired by the content of our job and the opportunity to choose our mission at work. We love for our minds to be engaged, expanded, and challenged in accomplishing this mission. It is this capacity that makes sure we think before we act, consider the consequences of our actions, and ask questions such as “Is this the most prudent course of action?”

Nous operates best when there is a program of lifelong education. Nous is stimulated by curiosity and makes a habit of seeing the world with a different set of eyes (creativity). It has a need for solitude (hence the stress that results when one is constantly interrupted), and cannot always be rushed (it needs time for quiet reflection).  Finally, nous thrives in a climate of dialogue where people are willing to learn from each other through collaboration.

The psyche—instincts and emotions —  is the often unconscious part of our nature which also needs to be engaged and expresses itself as a passion for our work. The sheer excitement about the job and the opportunity to collaborate with others drives us through discouragement and obstacles to accomplish far more than we realize possible. It is also that intuitive part of us that knows something to be true even if we can’t exactly put it into words.  The psyche recognizes that work is an art as well as a science.

The pneuma (spirit) of the person, often neglected or disregarded, is a capacity of humanity that causes us to reach for principles and a power deep within and beyond ourselves. We can also describe the pneuma as the ethical force behind the “golden rule”—that force which shapes character. What exactly is this character factor? It can best be described as people who operate by a ‘higher’ principle—beyond self-interest and ego-gratification—a commitment to a set of values which some view as transcendent. In pneuma, people sense a calling being expressed in their work. They often have a clear-eyed vision of their goals based on this calling. They draw on a power beyond the self of nous and psyche for inspiration and creativity. They express their calling to make a difference for good in the lives of others (contribution). The consequence of such expression is to give one’s life meaning.

Whatever our view of  the power beyond or within we can draw on pneuma to bring significance to our work and our life.  Author and poet Julia Cameron, writing about spirituality, says it this way:

“It’s [spirituality] not something that belongs to an elite few, and it’s not something that can be intellectually calibrated. For myself, I don’t make the distinction between being human, being spiritual, and being creative.”

What then are the signs of a fruitful person, engaged at all three levels: nous, psyche, and pneuma? Maybe this is best answered by a series of statements about our work. We are fruitful in our work when we can say ‘true’ to the following:

In the area of nous (the mind)

  • There are ample opportunities for intellectual growth and development.
  • There is a continual quest for intellectual or professional mastery
  • My opinions are valued and taken into account.
  • My curiosity is continually stimulated.
  • Creativity is encouraged and rewarded.
  • I am encouraged to come up with new ideas.
  • I have uninterrupted time to think deeply about challenges.
  • I have a clear career development plan.
  • I know (or, I am willing to learn) what it takes to get the job done.
  • I am continually learning in the work I do.

In the area of psyche (the instincts and emotions)

  • I take time and attend to deep personal relationships.
  • I value time for reflection.
  • I like working with my colleagues and clients or customers.
  • I am grateful to be a part of a team or a collaborative effort.
  • I am seldom bored at work.
  • The work environment is exciting.
  • I feel joy at work.
  • I am gratified that my contributions are recognized.
  • I share in the benefits and gratification of corporate success.
  • I am loyal to my company and our clients or customers.
  • I am proud of what I do.

In the area of pneuma (the spirit)

  • Business is conducted by the Golden Rule.
  • My values and that of the company are mostly in harmony.
  • I am of service to others.
  • I am making a contribution to society as a whole.
  • I draw strength from the highest aspects of myself or from a transcendent source.
  • I have a deep sense of meaning or calling in the work that I do.
  • I am energized by my spiritual principles and practices.
  • My personal calling finds expression in our corporate mission.
  • I have reverence for the environment.

Perhaps, now you have the tools to evaluate your own work situation. Are you overworked but unproductive? Are you productive but unfruitful? How well do you integrate the three aspects of your person in fruitful work? What specific steps do you need to make towards fruitfulness? As you begin to imagine possibilities of fruitfulness, plan and act towards that end, you will experience the ‘flow’ where you enjoy the job for itself and not just the pay. A new energy will fill you where work hours will fly by.  Your self-consciousness and fear of failure will evaporate. Is this just a fanciful dream? On the contrary, it is the experience of all who enjoy a life of fruitfulness.

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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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