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The hidden barrier to your team’s productivity

Make it safe for your highly productive employees to “ask for help,” “ask questions” and “know who to go to” to seek assistance.

4 min read




As a leader, you know that productive employees bring value to your team.  

Recent findings from a white paper by consulting and training firm VitalSmarts highlight the magnitude of high performers’ productivity: they are 21 times less likely to experience tasks or responsibilities that “fall through the cracks.”

Moreover, the research found that these same employees were also 18 times less likely to feel overwhelmed than their less-productive peers. Somehow, these hard-working, productive employees have found a way to deliver results without sacrificing their mental health.

What’s their secret?

VitalSmarts’ research reveals an answer that, on the surface, isn’t surprising. The most highly rated employees — those cited as being “high value” to the company — have exemplary work habits in personal productivity.  The productivity practices listed in the white paper are pretty standard fare: being organized, keeping lists, skilled at prioritizing, and so on.

It turns out that there is a second element to their productivity success, and it goes beyond their ability to get things done. What sets the top performers apart are a very specific set of communication behaviors. According to the leaders surveyed, highly productive employees “ask for help,” “aren’t afraid to ask questions,” and “know who to go to” to seek assistance.

In other words, the top-performing employees speak up. But speaking up isn’t always easy to do. Many employees have tried to voice their ideas or opinions, only to be shut down. Team leaders who want to create a “speak up” culture need to foster “psychological safety” — one in which employees know they can raise concerns without fear of retribution or ridicule.

“When people feel like they are being attacked [for their ideas], they tend to go into ‘fight or flight’ mode, rather than having honest and forthcoming dialog,” says David Maxfield, vice president of research for VitalSmarts, who oversaw the research on employee productivity.

According to Maxfield, productivity, communication, and psychological safety are inextricably linked. He believes that it’s possible to have employees who are great time managers but “still don’t feel there is enough psychological safety to tell their boss they are going to miss a deadline.”

Maxfield offers an example of a nurse who notices that a surgeon has failed to wash her hands and decides not to say anything. Clearly, both medical professionals understand the importance of clean hands, so there is something else at play for not speaking up, which creates, “an intentional breakdown of communication because someone doesn’t feel it’s safe” to speak up, says Maxfield.

Fear of speaking up is rarely explored as a barrier to personal productivity. In many ways, getting things done is seen primarily as a task-oriented process, not a communication issue. Yet, as a leader, it’s important to take the human element of productivity into account. Wise leaders understand that silence creates a ripple effect, increasing opportunities for mistakes and misunderstanding, which in turn diminishes productivity.

The next time an employee misses a deadline, drops the ball, or flubs the details, consider if failure to speak up played a role. Ask yourself:

  • Could this error have been prevented if the employee had spoken up?
  • How did I address the employee’s mistake? With anger or blame? Or with a “let’s learn from this” stance?
  • What role do I play as the leader of this team in failure to speak up?
  • What other barriers are preventing people from speaking up?
  • What will I do differently next time to encourage my employees to raise concerns?

There are many possible reasons for why team members don’t deliver the results you expect. Aside from poor time management, consider the possible communication barriers that are contributing factors. If failure to speak up is the cause, you as a leader can help address the problem. Learning to speak up is a vital communication skill for all employees. But it won’t happen if your leadership doesn’t encourage it.


Jennifer V. Miller is a freelance writer and leadership development consultant. She helps business professionals lead themselves and others towards greater career success. Join her Facebook community The People Equation and sign up for her free tip sheet: “Why is it So Hard to Shut Up? 18 Ways to THINK before you Speak.”

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