How Smart are your people working?

What percentage of your working week is spent doing things you think you should be doing, and doing them well? In other words, Working Smart.


If you have just answered this question, make a note somewhere. I’ll explain why.


It’s a question I have been asking employees around the world in my leadership training programmes for the last 20 years. I have met nearly 10,000 people in that time, so when I tell you what the average answer to this question is, I feel it has strong validity.




It may surprise you to learn that the answer is 40%. I kid you not. This means that the typical organisation is producing its results on two days per week. How does that result compare with the one you wrote down?


The percentage doesn’t vary across geographies, and hasn’t improved over time: in fact I see it worsening slightly over recent years.
On one hand we should be extremely worried about this, as it is a sign of major organisational malfunction. And on the other it is a huge opportunity, because there is so much potential upside if we can do something about it. Imagine the difference to results if you could improve the number by 10%. What if each of your employees had another day per week of doing productive, relevant and impactful activity: what difference would that make?


What lies behind this malfunction? Here are the top 5 most frequently cited causes:


1. Conflict avoidance. Research done by Ralph Kilmann shows that avoidance of conflict is the preferred conflict handling mode at work. (Outside of work it is, interestingly, the least preferred, meaning we put on a different persona when we walk into the office. Hmmm.) Conflict avoidance leads to problems not being resolved, lack of trust, going round in circles, lack of buy in – you name it. It has a toxic effect on teams and can lead to poor morale and poor performance.


2. Lack of clarity. Employees are, typically, not sure of what is important, unclear about what the direction is and why, and not engaged with the (often poorly defined) objectives they are supposedly working towards. What’s more, they do not get the air time with their manager they need to review and update these objectives, and so they find themselves flailing about hoping that enough of what they do is deemed to be useful that they get a good review at the end of the year.


3. Useless meetings. These are the biggest time wasters (worse than email), and they are a source of angst and frustration with employees. Meetings are run poorly, with no agendas, unclear objectives, poor time management, unclear actions and lack of ownership. Actions are not followed up at subsequent meetings, so progress is slow and sporadic. People are often unclear about why they are at the meeting, but because they avoid conflict (see 1), they don’t ask for clarity, they just show up.


4. Poor processes and procedures. One of the biggest moans I come across is frustration with outdated, complex and impenetrable processes and procedures. People can spend literally day trying to work out who the owner of a broken procedure is. The energy and time required to advocate an alternative is usually seen as excessive, and so the best thing you can do is either try to circumvent it or put up with it (see1 again). How organisations manage to survive with these processes and procedures in place is one of life’s great mysteries.


5. Lack of coaching. Most people are capable of far more than they realise. Not helping people to fulfil their potential is one of the many crimes we can lay at the door of the poor quality managers I hear about all too often. How many of your managers see coaching their people as one of their top priorities, I wonder? And yet we know that having a good coach is the number one thing on the wish list for high performers. Google researched this extensively internally: see this article for more.) People who are not coached find themselves dong work which does not engage them, and which they would argue is wasting their time. Their untapped potential is another example of wasted resources which are available to us if we could only tap into them.


Of course I’m stating the case bluntly, and it’s not all as bad as this. But I wouldn’t mind betting that there is significant room for improvement in each of these five areas within your organisation.


How you go about addressing them is a different question, and will have to wait for a subsequent article.


About the writer

Michael Brown has been developing leadership and behavioural skills in organisations around the world for 20 years. His book “My Job Isn’t Working!” is published on July 10th. It tells the story of the pressure mid careers workers are under, and the Top 10 things they can do to make their work experience more rewarding and fulfilling without having to leave.

Author: Editor

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