6 mins

It’s common to equate working at 100% capacity to elevated productivity, but this isn’t true. Nick Means has some ways you can approach team efficiency in a healthier way.

Our ancient ancestors knew a thing or two about the cyclicality of life. They planted when the last frost had passed, harvested when their crops were ready, feasted when food was plentiful, and stored up for when it was not. Paying close attention to these cycles was a matter of survival for them.

But as we’ve organized ourselves into more specialized societies, there’s no longer a real need for most of us to pay attention to this seasonal cyclicality. Nowhere is this more obvious than our expectations around productivity. Where humans used to focus spikes of hard work around planting and harvest, we’re now bombarded with a hustle mindset that tells us we should constantly be exerting ourselves. 

We sometimes internalize this thinking as leaders, making us feel like we’re failing unless everyone on our team is perpetually performing at peak productivity. We push ourselves and our teams as hard as we can, then we’re surprised at the epidemic levels of burnout all around us.

A healthier way

Whether you’ve realized it or not, your teams already operate cyclically: the rush to hit a major deadline and then the slow period that follows hitting it. The slightly reduced pace of summers, when it seems like at least one person is out on vacation every week. The Fridays that lazily wind themselves down a little earlier than usual. The lead-up to quarterly planning when your team is working on a bunch of little things while waiting for company approval on the next quarter’s big goals.

Given this, the question is how leaders should respond to these natural variations in pace and engagement. It’s tempting to fight against them, to feel like anything less than someone’s top pace is productivity you’re leaving on the table. But research is clear that longer hours don’t lead to better outcomes, and that our brains need downtime to solve hard problems

Embracing and normalizing the cyclical nature of productivity increases both work output and happiness over time in some pretty meaningful ways. Helping the folks on your team give themselves permission to not always be operating at 100%, to regularly rest and recover, and to make room for life amidst work when they need to yields huge dividends. 

It’s easy to feel good when you’re moving fast, so here are some strategies to help the folks on your team feel OK when things are moving more slowly than they’d like them to.

Be curious

When someone is working more slowly than usual, they likely already know it. What’s more, there’s a good chance that they’re experiencing some combination of embarrassment and shame because of it. Your job as their manager is to give them a safe way to tell you what’s going on so you can help.

You can do this by asking curious, open-ended questions. Instead of pointing out how little they’ve been getting done lately, start by just asking how things are going and give them time to talk. If you need to nudge a little more, you can gently say something like “You haven’t seemed like yourself the last couple of weeks. Is everything OK?” 

Questions like these make it clear that you care about them as a person, not just their work output. This is important because, try as we might, humans aren’t very good at compartmentalizing. When something’s going on outside of work, either at home or in the world around us, it can affect our ability to be present and engaged. 

It’s important to remember that when you do ask these open-ended questions, you need to leave more open space in the conversation than you typically would. Silence always feels longer to the person asking a question because the person answering is taking time to figure out exactly what they want to say. Breaking an “awkward” silence too quickly can keep someone from answering at all. 

Normalize the experience

Once you understand why someone is not as productive as usual, you need to help them see that what they’re going through is normal and okay. Any shame and embarrassment they’re feeling is likely blocking them from having a more productive response to the situation. As their manager, your compassion can help them be more kind to themselves.

One of the best ways to do this is to help them see that productivity is cyclical. Remind them of some of the great work they’ve done recently and reassure them that it’s okay if they need to go a little slower for a bit. In doing this, you can help them give themselves the needed permission to work at their current capacity. This is much healthier than them sitting at their desk and feeling bad that they’re not getting more done.

It’s also important to know when and how to encourage someone to seek additional support. Your role as a manager is to help your team thrive and grow, caring about them as people, not just in terms of their work output. But when someone is going through something really difficult outside of work or is struggling with a mental health issue like ongoing depression, part of caring about them is being able to encourage them to get help from someone better equipped to guide them through it.

Focus on the upswing

Finally, it’s important to help them see the path out. When we complete a task, our bodies reward us with dopamine for getting that thing done. Tasks that take us longer than we expect postpone this dopamine rush, making it seem like the “down period” between the start and finish of a project is lasting much longer than it actually is. 

Reassuring someone that productivity is cyclical can help them see that it’s inevitable that their productivity will return. Instead of spending their time fretting about it, they can rest, focus on training and/or other tasks they’ve been putting off, or catch up with folks on other teams they haven’t talked to in a while. It’s difficult to do any of these things when you feel like you need to put your full effort into speeding back up.

Rhythm allows rest

Focusing on the cyclicality of productivity has become a critical tool in my leadership toolbelt. When an individual, or even my whole team is concerned about not getting enough done, it lets me honestly say, “I’m not worried about it, and you shouldn’t be either.” By focusing on how productivity averages out over time and not worrying so much about the peaks and valleys, I can give the people on my team the freedom to rest and recover, without them worrying or feeling guilty about it.

If you work to help your team embrace natural cyclicality, they’ll be less burned out and get more done over time than a team that’s constantly trying to move at top speed. And that’s something we all want.