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What Is Productivity Paranoia?

What it is and how it impacts teams and organizations.

Key points

  • In a survey, 85 percent of leaders said that hybrid work has made it more difficult to be confident in their employees' productivity.
  • Productivity paranoia refers to the disconnect between employer and employee perceptions of productivity.
  • Productivity paranoia isn't a stand-alone problem; it nearly always points to underlying problems, including low trust.

Over the years, I’ve worked with a number of leaders who seem to be convinced that the best way to operate is at full throttle. But is this really true?

On the surface, operating at full throttle creates an illusion of productivity. In reality, these teams and organizations aren’t necessarily the highest-performing ones and are often not performing as well as they assume. In fact, they are often suffering from something that has increasingly come to be described as “productivity paranoia.” By definition, this is a high-adrenaline, high-cortisol, stress-induced work state. But, as this post explains, when productivity paranoia presents itself on a team or in an organization, it is nearly always a sign of other underlying problems.

What Productivity Paranoia Is

Productivity paranoia refers to the disconnect between employer and employee perceptions of productivity.

For example, in a September 2022 Microsoft survey of more than 20,000 employees around the globe, a staggering 85 percent of leaders surveyed said the shift to hybrid work has made it difficult to be confident that their employees are being productive. In fact, the survey found that while 87 percent of employees think they are being productive, only 12 percent of employers have full confidence in this self-assessment.

So how does one explain the massive disconnect? According to Microsoft, the explanation for the growing disconnect rests on the shift to hybrid work, which means that managers and leaders are no longer easily able to see which team members are showing up and what they are producing on a daily basis.

The Real Issues Underlying Productivity Paranoia

Where there is productivity paranoia, there are nearly always other problems plaguing one’s team or organization.

Understanding That We're All Wired Differently

Leaders and employees are often wired differently. Leaders either don’t know their employees or are unaware of how their employees are motivated and, in turn, try to inspire them in ways that don’t work.

Ambiguous Expectations

Often, productivity paranoia shows up when managers or leaders fail to clearly articulate their expectations (e.g., deliverables and timelines). In other cases, the problem isn’t about how expectations have been articulated but rather about the unrealistic nature of the expectations. In the latter case, employers will invariably be worried about productivity because the expectations they’ve set simply can’t be met, at least not in the given timeframe.

If productivity paranoia is a problem on your team or in your organization, the first step is to assess expectations. Are your expectations reasonable? Are you articulating them clearly and consistently? Where are the breakdowns showing up?

Low Trust

It goes without saying that low trust is also something that all too often leads to productivity paranoia on teams and across organizations. In larger organizations, where trust is low and productivity paranoia exists, leaders even resort to investing in activity-tracking software. When you resort to monitoring keystrokes per minute or eye movements scanning a screen, however, you’re tracking activity but not impact.

To rebuild trust, go back to the basics and focus on the core elements of trust. Dennis and Michelle Reina boil it down to trust in competence, trust in communication, and trust in character. By rebuilding trust, you might not only overcome the productivity paranoia plaguing your team but also promote greater output or productivity. A 2017 study carried out by Paul J. Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, found that trust had a powerful effect on work performance. Respondents whose companies promoted trust through a wide range of best practices reported having more energy, being more engaged at work, and being more productive. They also were 40 percent less likely to report burnout on the job.

Lack of Understanding of Flow/Optimal Performance

The concept of flow is based on the pioneering work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. At its core, it’s about the conditions that enable us to feel and perform at our best. A study by McKinsey found that, when we’re in flow, we are five times more productive than normal. What is interesting is that flow is most likely to happen at work when (1) we feel in control (have self-efficacy) and (2) we feel highly valued (intrinsic motivation). Productivity paranoia seems to run counter to creating both of these conditions.

In addition, it is essential to toggle between periods of purposeful struggle and recharging. Put simply, to experience flow and be up to five times more productive, you actually need to take your foot off the pedal from time to time to relax, recharge, and take perspective. On a team or in an organization where going full throttle all the time is assumed to be the best way to drive productivity, it’s essentially impossible to reach flow.

All good managers and leaders are concerned about productivity on their teams. Understanding that going all out may not be the only or best way to drive productivity (and even undermine one’s ability to achieve high levels of productivity) is essential. Just as important, however, is the ability to step back and assess what might be plaguing your team or organization when productivity paranoia arises. As this post has outlined, more often than not, productivity paranoia is a symptom of another underlying problem or combination of problems on your team or in your organization.

References

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & LeFevre, J. (1989). Optimal experience in work and leisure. Journal of personality and social psychology, 56(5), 815–822. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-3514.56.5.815

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