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Unproductive at work? It could be your manager’s fault, author says

The way you're managed at work is key to your productivity, argues author Charles Duhigg.
The way you're managed at work is key to your productivity, argues author Charles Duhigg. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Jim Mone

Less is more when it comes to how much control managers should exert over employees’ work, says Charles Duhigg, bestselling author of The Power of Habit.

That’s one of the biggest takeaways in his latest book on productivity, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business

In it Duhigg argues that managers often undermine their own goals of increasing productivity in the workplace by over-managing.

“The more we tend to empower our employees instead of manage them, the more returns we end up getting on their labour,” he told Global News.

And most employees have an innate capacity to work well independently, he said.

“Managers oftentimes, particularly new managers, believe that their job is to tell people what they do. But many studies actually show that the opposite is true.

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“The best managers tend to be people who empower or challenge their employees to take control.”

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READ MORE: How rules and to-do lists may be killing your productivity

A manager’s job should be to remove obstacles, Duhigg said, so that their staff can achieve more. Otherwise, their potential is diminished.

Building trust

Duhigg bolsters his point with anecdotes in his book: A kidnapping victim was saved thanks to a critical shift in  FBI mentality that encouraged junior agents “to make independent decisions … rather than waiting for orders from superiors.”

This allowed the agents to pursue a lead that their bosses may have written-off for being too much of a long-shot.

Employees need to trust themselves, Duhigg said, and it’s important that “bosses are committed to supporting you if you take a chance that might not pay off.”

Workplace culture is crucial

Two business professors at Standford spent 15 years studying close to 200 start-ups in Silicone Valley starting in 1994, a time when the internet was still in its infancy. Some failed, others went on to become the most successful companies in the world.

The researchers wanted to show that way a business treats its workers is critical to its success.

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So they sorted the companies into five categories based on their workplace culture:

  1. Star culture — Execs hire from top universities or other successful companies and give employees huge amounts of autonomy, plus plenty of perks.
  2. Engineering culture  — The focus is much less on the individual and more on working together as a group.
  3. Bureaucratic culture — There are thick ranks of middle managers, extensive job descriptions, organizational charts and employee handbooks. Everything is spelled out, and there are rituals like “weekly all-hands meetings.’
  4. Autocratic culture  —  All the rules, job descriptions, and organization charts ultimately point to the desires and goals of one person (usually the founder or CEO).
  5. Commitment culture — There are fewer middle managers, layoffs are avoided as much as possible and training is heavily invested in.

Only one of the five was a consistent predictor of a company’s sustainable success.

Commitment culture. It “outperformed every other type of management style in almost every meaningful way,” Duhigg wrote.

READ MORE: Millennials and the changing world of work

The star model produced some of the biggest success stories, but “star firms also failed in record numbers.” Their downfall was often internal rivalries (everyone wanted to be “the star.”) The engineering model was good for rapid growth, not so great in the long-term.

Employees in “commitment”-style companies were valued and were offered generous maternity leaves and work-from-home options. This led to better retention rates — even when employees were offered more money from competitors.

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The model cultivated a greater sense of trust within the company and “psychological safety” for employees.

READ MORE: Work-life balance are job insecurity are key mental health factors in the workplace, study finds

It might not always be a magic bullet, Duhigg admitted in his book.

“But it’s the best bet for making sure the right conditions are in place when a great idea comes along.”