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4 Phrases Overheard in an Unproductive Workplace

On the surface, an unproductive workplace can seem like a hive of useful activity.

People aren’t sitting around doing nothing. They are often doing quite the opposite, running from one thing to another.

I’ve worked in an unproductive workplace or two in my time.

What I’ve noticed is that these workplaces are fuelled by an underlying set of behaviours and beliefs which form part of the workplace culture.

In this post, I’ll take a look at the real cost of an unproductive workplace and some of the key phrases and behaviours that will help you to identify them.

The Cost of an Unproductive Workplace

At first, it may seem like an unproductive workplace is just about inefficiency.

The only cost may appear to be that more work could be being completed in the time available.

Doesn’t sound like a big deal, does it?

The company might be making $100 million when it could perhaps make $110 million if we all worked a little more effectively.

Who cares?

No, the Real Cost is the People.

When people work in an unproductive workplace, they gradually become worse versions of themselves.

They don’t work on the most important things (because people haven’t decided what they are). They spend time redoing work that was completed incorrectly.

Or become stressed, trying to finish ten things, when five would be more realistic.

People will also do work just to be busy, because busy people seem more valuable.

Unproductive workplace maths

Over time, this type of environment damages people.

They lose motivation. They start to think “why bother?” Some will leave for more attractive opportunities, but others will stay.

Work starts to lose its purpose and meaning.

Then people will start to do just enough, instead of an excellent job.

People feel the most motivated when they are trusted, improving their skills and doing meaningful work.

But when we feel unmotivated, it’s unlikely we’ll spend time trying to get better. We’ll just go home and turn on the TV.

Learn More:  How to Help Your Team Feel a Sense of Purpose.

Phrases to Watch Out For

Here are five dangerous phrases that can point to an unproductive workplace.

The common language people use is important, because it tells you what sort of unwritten ground rules (UGRs) exist in the workplace.

These rules are powerful, and people tend to follow them because it’s easier than going against the grain.

Watch out for these phrases and remain alert to what they mean.

1. “Busy?”

This is a very interesting question, often phrased as a greeting.

Better Leader Today - Being BusySomeone comes up to you and asks “Are you busy?” or “Have you been busy?”

This is a leading question, and it expects a “Yes” response.

When someone asks me this question, I feel a weird tension, a feeling that I’m supposed to say “Yes”.

This is because we have been conditioned to believe that busy is good. Not busy is bad.

This means that being busy is the target. Instead of doing excellent, important work, we are aiming for busy.

And when you aim for busy, you could be doing any old task. It doesn’t matter what it is.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #156: Let’s Dismantle the Cult of Busyness.

2. “Good afternoon” or “Working a half-day?”

This phrase is a classic in many unproductive workplaces.

When someone starts work a little later than others, they are greeted with these statements.

These phrases indirectly say “You should come in earlier”.

Giving feedback - timelyWhy?

Because when you come in earlier, you are more dedicated. 

Of course, it shouldn’t really matter whether we start at 7am or 9am, it’s about getting the work done.

But this ghost of the past still exists. Early starters are perceived as more dedicated and committed.

This is a dangerous attitude, because it makes people feel bad for coming in later than others.

This could lead to greater stress, trying to juggle family commitments, or forcing yourself to be a morning person when you’re not.

I once worked in a company where there was someone who started early every day, and he took pride in being the first in the office.

Of course, he left earlier too, so he wasn’t doing any more hours than anyone else.

One day I arrived early for a meeting, and I saw him at his desk reading the paper.

Coming in early doesn’t make you any more, or less dedicated.

Learn More:  Too Busy at Work? Try These 5 Things.

3. “It Would be Nice to be Able to Have a Break”

Picture this scene.

You’re taking five minutes to have a coffee, and someone walks past busily, saying “It would be nice to be able to take a break”.

What are they really saying?

They’re saying:

“I’m more important because I’m busier than you;” and

“You’re not as dedicated as me.”

The funny thing is, it is now quite well known that taking breaks is good for productivity.

I’m going to take one right now, because I’ve been writing for an hour already. And now I’m back.

When someone says this to you, what they might really be saying is:

“I wish I could take a break, but I feel guilty when I do.”

And that, my thoughtful friends, is a problem.

4. “I’ve Been in Back to Back Meetings All Day”

When someone proudly announces this in the workplace, I find it quite strange.

Bored manager in 1 to 1 meetingI’d be embarrassed to say this out loud, because it would mean:

  • I have no control over my own schedule; and
  • I’m letting other people dictate how I work, even though I know it’s not productive.

So you can be sure that when people say this, it means they believe that they are in high demand and very important, because they are in back to back meetings.

However, once again, this is a misguided belief.

Research from Microsoft shows that taking breaks between meetings reduces stress and helps you to focus and engage better.

So people should perform better when they stop themselves from being in back to back meetings.

Learn More:  Essential Daily Habits to Maintain Your Workplace Wellbeing.

So What Do We Do About Our Unproductive Workplace?

While workplace culture is a real thing consisting of unwritten ground rules and behavioural norms, I don’t think it’s good enough to say that we can’t change “because it’s the culture here.”


Because culture is made from people.

You can’t see and hear culture. What you can see and hear is what people say and what they do.

You can’t hold culture accountable. You can hold people accountable for their behaviour and what they say.

As a leader reading this, you’re in a good position to help shape the culture.

The culture made me do it

Simple Actions to Take to Encourage a Productive Workplace

First, you can start by noticing the language used in your team.

Next, you can set an example and be a good role model so that others can feel more comfortable engaging in productive behaviour. This includes encouraging flexible working, taking breaks, having shorter meetings and focusing on outcomes, instead of working hours.

Coach your people in productive behaviours, like scheduling time in their calendars for important work and saying “No” instead of taking on more and more.

You can also call out situations when you hear people reinforcing unproductive behaviours, such as when you hear the phrases I’ve covered earlier.

What you will do is slowly set a new tone for your team and workplace.

Unproductive workplaces are dangerous.

They make people less than what they could be, which erodes confidence and sets a low standard for what they can achieve.

You can guide your team to a better place.

What else do you notice about an unproductive workplace? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!

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