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Removing Obstacles vs. Creating Drivers

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A Change in Focus Could Yield Higher Employee Productivity

Businesses are always looking for ways to incentivize employees to be more productive. Drivers are put in place to promote engagement. They may be appreciative (i.e. employee of the month), competitive, or monetary in nature, but quite often, the driver is simply pressure to get things done, regardless of workload. To exacerbate the situation, there are often circumstances outside the employees’ control that make achieving the desired result that much more challenging. Furthermore, as the pace of the world continues to increase, the mental burden of taking on more and more has become overwhelming for many, leading to low employee morale, stress-related illnesses and, in many cases, turnover of valued talent.

breaking down walls removing obstacles concept

So, what is a manager to do? An alternative to creating drivers is to look for and remove obstacles that may be impeding productivity. After all, employees want to succeed just as much as you want them to. You can help make that happen without having to “crack the whip.” Removing obstacles can alleviate a lot of frustration that saps energy and productivity, with the added benefit of positioning you as an ally – a manager who understands your team’s challenges and can be trusted to listen empathetically and support positive change. A few fundamental practices can put you on the path toward improving your team’s morale and wellbeing as well as increasing productivity.

Plan Appropriately.

Be realistic. Avoid the “all you have to do is” syndrome. This involves knowing the process – as opposed to your ideal or possible misconception of it. Do you really know all the steps involved in achieving the end-result and how long each step takes? This is required to properly align resources to get the project finished on time.

Talk with your employees and map out the process to be sure you completely understand what’s involved. While it’s easy to blame workers for a project not going according to plan, an evaluation of the process followed to get there will likely reveal a variety of obstacles – non-value-added steps that take time and energy but do nothing to move the project along. Some may actually create roadblocks that employees are powerless to avoid. Look for ways to simplify.

By creating drivers, you push employees to do more. 

By removing obstacles, you enable employees to do more.


If the only way to get it all done is to cut corners on every project, then it’s time to pick and choose which projects should get attention. Otherwise, employees will be too fragmented to do anything very well, and quality will suffer, not to mention timeliness. Instead, focus on the most impactful projects – the ones that are most likely to lead to increased revenue and profitability. This could mean eliminating some of the “do-anyway” tasks that yield little or no ROI but continue just because “you’ve always done them.” Question this reasoning. If there’s no tangible benefit, then why do it? If there is a benefit, then look for an easier way to accomplish the same result. If employees are working on the right things, the benefits to your business will become apparent.

Make it safe for employees to express frustrations and point out problems.

Think of complaints as expressions of dedication and a desire to make things better. Then help make it happen. After all, problems are simply opportunities for improvement, and you can only fix a problem that you know about. An employee who points out a problem that could be affecting productivity, safety, product quality, or level of waste is giving you a gift. More than likely, that employee also has ideas for how to fix it. Encourage this behavior.

Be open to new ways of doing things.

Check your ego at the door and keep an open mind. Getting defensive about how you may have done things in the past will accomplish nothing. Besides, the employees who work in the process are best equipped to solve any issues with it because they know more about it than anyone else. Encourage them to collaborate on solutions that make it easier to get work out the door and then recognize them for the effort.

Get out of the way.

The employees who work in the process are the experts, so dispense with multiple layers of reviews and approvals wherever possible. Rather, trust them to do what they know how to do, and encourage them to come to you if they have questions or problems that could impact the timeline or the outcome. Work with employees to create standard processes with clear direction and expectations. Check in often and look for ways that you can help simplify and enable projects to stay on track.

Let enterprise goals be the drivers.

At the end of the day, employees want to do meaningful work unfettered by frustrations that hinder their ability to meet goals since goals are typically linked to compensation. Individual and department goals should feed the enterprise goals. If individual and department goals are met, then the enterprise goals will be met, resulting in higher revenue and profitability.

When you remove obstacles that impede progress, everyone wins. The workplace becomes safer and the workload less overwhelming. Productivity and quality are maximized, waste is minimized, and your ability to meet customer needs is improved. The resulting increase in revenue and profitability, in turn, enables further investment in process improvements and better compensation, creating a win-win for employees and the company. By creating drivers, you push employees to do more; whereas, by removing obstacles, you enable employees to do more. Which one do you think feels better?

Enabling Employee Success Is Good for Business

As a college student, I waited tables in a variety of restaurants, and I witnessed multiple management styles. Two of these job experiences stand out in my mind due to the stark contrast in how the owners managed employees during busy shifts. One of these businesses enjoyed many years of prosperity, often with lines out the door of patrons waiting to be seated, while the other lasted barely six months.

On one particular evening working at, we’ll call it Jim’s Place, we’d had a really slow night and Jim had sent just about everyone home early. However, after the movie theatre down the street let out, we got slammed. The entire restaurant was full, with only one or two waitresses and one bus boy on duty. I asked Jim to make a pot of coffee while I performed other tasks to service our customers. He refused, saying that he had a team of good people who could handle whatever our customers might need. You can imagine my reaction. My response was, “Well, if you’re ok with your customers waiting 10 minutes for a cup of coffee, fine. Just sit there.” He’d placed an obstacle in our way by adjusting the staffing level with no thought to the movie schedule down the block and no countermeasure to rectify his error, which could have been as simple as helping out. This lack of planning made for a very stressful time for those of us still on duty, as well as some very frustrated customers who would likely never come back. No matter how hard we worked that night, we were not going to be successful in pleasing Jim’s customers.

In contrast, at the other restaurant, Chris’s Place, Chris was in the trenches with us during every busy shift, and he wasn’t above performing the most menial of tasks. If you asked him to make coffee, he would do it. If you asked him to bring a spoon to table 5, he would do it. He enabled us to be successful by working as a team member when the situation required it - filling in the holes so that his customers had the best possible experience in his restaurant. Naturally, he was also the boss and had many management responsibilities beyond helping his staff, but when it was busy, he recognized that the best use of his time was to enable his workers to succeed, and in so doing make sure his customers were happy. The staff all appreciated this and responded with loyalty and hard work.

You can probably guess which of these two restaurants lasted and which one didn’t.

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