Creating high value productive workplaces

by 06 Nov 2012

Dr Tony van Rensburg suggests it's time to be working to improve productivity by focusing on factors we can influence rather than those we can't.

All too often, the approach to low productivity is use of blunt instruments such as ‘across-the-board’ cost reductions, ‘efficiency dividends’ and downsizing the workforce; rather than on strategies to build more productive workplaces with greater skills and more innovation. Cost and debt reduction are important for productivity (and sometimes survival), but should not always be the first levers we pull.

Improving productivity nationally and in public and private organisations is a hot topic. Australia has dropped from 5th to 15th in the latest survey on international competitiveness, productivity is slipping according to the Productivity Commission, and we are one of the most expensive places on earth to live and do business.

Some of this malaise is due to factors such as the AU$ which are out of our control. However, these are times when we need to be working assiduously to improve productivity by focusing on factors we can influence.

One high priority is to transition from the current adversarial IR culture to one that is more focused on finding, and then amplifying consensus factors such as creating wealth, rather being obsessed with how a diminishing pie is distributed – a subject to be explored at another time.

It would also be prudent for management to ‘set the pace’ in developing a fresh approach by implementing strategies that build ‘high value’ productive workplaces. These are mutually beneficial workplaces, where basic principles of human behaviour are consistently applied to achieve high performance over time.

In my early career, I thought about people in terms of their performance profile e.g. Stars, Workhorses, Deadwood or Problem Employees, using the well-known performance/potential matrix. Of course this is flawed thinking as it is about putting people into boxes. Once you are labelled a poor performer or problem employee, the die is cast, and there is little escape from your inevitable destiny.

I now prefer to talk about performance rather than performers. Broadly speaking, there are three levels of performance - High Performance, Consistent Performance and Under Performance. Most of us will perform in all three categories at different times. Some will display High Performance most of the time, but occasionally under perform for reasons I will discuss shortly; others will be content to perform at a satisfactory level much of the time, and some will under-perform frequently. But even they will usually have the potential to perform better.

Part of the quest for a ‘high-value’ productive workplace is achieving greater levels of High Performance from as many employees as possible; because they want to, not because they have to.

Studies have shown that a focus on getting more High Performance is likely to increase productive output 50 to 60 times more than by focusing on eliminating underperformance. Underperformance has to be dealt with or it will become ‘toxic’, but it should not normally have the same weighting as amplifying good performance. We should also value consistent performance and ensure that it isn’t taken for granted.

So, how do we lift the overall performance level of individuals and organisations? One effective approach has been around since the Industrial Revolution – just overlooked or pooh poohed as being too simplistic or lacking immediate impact. Let’s examine a few of the more obvious high value strategies for creating productive workplaces.

Human drive in the workplace is mostly determined by meeting intrinsic needs which, at the highest level, are the needs for Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose (MAP). Specific and practical ways of meeting these needs in most people include:


  • Providing opportunities for achievement
  • Giving recognition and praise for good work
  • Finding simple ways of making work more interesting
  • Allowing responsibility and ‘room to move’
  • Creating opportunities for advancement and personal growth
  • Encouraging teamwork and friendships
  • Ensuring alignment between tasks and a higher purpose.


These priceless needs are deeply embedded in the human condition and most of us crave them to a greater or lesser extent. The challenge for leaders is having knowledge of what individuals in their teams need most, and when. When it is hard to meet one or more of these needs (e.g. routine or repetitive work), then focusing on those needs that can be met becomes a priority.

I will discuss the role of money in another article. But in essence, as we are seekers of fairness, we become grumpy when we perceive financial rewards are lower than they should be. Therefore, creating a sense of equity around pay is paramount.

Another important step is ensuring that people have clarity about: Why are we here? What are the key things we need to achieve? How are we going to achieve them? i.e. getting alignment and line-of-site. This helps create certainty and a sense of purpose for people. Both key behavioural drivers.

Humans are ‘meaning’ creatures and most organisations have a Noble Cause which their people can associate with e.g. customer service, community care, scientific innovation etc. The Noble Cause is often hidden under layers of administration and needs to be ‘dug up’ and promoted. It is often the reason people joined in the first place and is usually the organisation’s raison d’etre.

A recent study indicated that the most important motivator of all is experiencing a sense of progress (akin to achievement).That feeling of moving forward rather than spinning your wheels or encountering roadblocks. Leaders need to create and maintain a forward motion.

The intrinsic reward factors are well suited to drive greater levels of high performance over time. However, dealing with underperformance can sometimes be more complex.

When people are experiencing threats to their survival they will not respond as readily to the intrinsic factors. For example, if they believe their jobs are in jeopardy, are experiencing financial hardship or don’t feel accepted by the team, satisfying these basic needs will take precedence over the intrinsic ones. A good leader will know this and manage accordingly.

In my experience, serial underperformance is not commonplace in most organisations and when it does exist, it is more likely to be due to extraneous factors such as mental health, poor supervision or being ‘on the wrong seat on the bus’ rather being on the ‘wrong bus’. 

Oftentimes, questions need to be asked to uncover the real reasons for underperformance.


  • What exactly is the performance discrepancy? ( e.g. skill v attitude).
  • Are expectations clear?
  • Do they have the right resources and support to do the job?
  • Do they possess the required skill and capability?
  • Are they getting feedback on their performance?
  • What obstacles exist?
  • Are they in the right job i.e. ‘fit’?


Then regular 2-way performance conversations, built on trust, need to happen where a mutual desire to help each other grow and develop dominates. The traditional boss-subordinate approach is unlikely to be effective in modern workplaces. The parties need to strive for a partnership approach.

When people do not respond to performance improvement encouragement, as can happen, then they need to ‘get off the bus’ as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, productivity benefits flowing from performance enhancement strategies take much longer than downsizing to be realised. However, the results are almost always more positive to the organisation’s culture and brand, and are longer lasting. Given the minimal costs and effort needed to implement and maintain motivational leadership, what is there to lose by striving for a ‘high value’ productive workplace?

About the author

Dr Tony van Rensburg is a performance advisor and coach and works with two specialist consulting firms: exceptionalpeople, (HR consulting and L&D) and Collins Pitt (reconstruction and performance improvement). You can contact Tony on or  


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