When It Comes to Employee Productivity, the Fewer Rules Are Better

A couple of days ago, I wrote about some recent research on the negative impact that corporate award programs can have on firm productivity.

Most of my emphasis there was on the problems inherent in the design of those types of attendance awards, and why such findings can’t be applied to true employee recognition programs.

One finding did stick with me, though.

Almost immediately following the implementation of the attendance awards, employees who used to be punctual became less so and even experienced decreased productivity. The researchers attributed this to a combination of motivational spillover and perceptions of inequity. But, I wonder if perhaps another explanation isn’t more of a contributing factor:

Freedom.

Fewer rules, more productivity

I realize that may not sound like a scientific explanation of employee behavior, but hang with me for a moment.

Trying to think through the “why” behind the productivity decrease, I serendipitously came across research cited in Laszlo Bock’s Work Rules!, which is one of the many books in my current reading list. He references this research from MIT professor Richard Locke and his colleagues, part of which examined productivity across two of Nike’s garment factories in Mexico.

One plant empowered workers to decide their own production goals, division of work, and even team organization. The other plant imposed rules around task structure and timing, tightly controlling the shop floor. It probably isn’t a surprise that the plant with fewer rules and more freedom was more productive.

Many of us are probably used to hearing about the benefits of freedom from big and innovative organizations, like Google and Netflix. But here is an example from a manufacturing company responsible for making t-shirts, not self-driving cars.

I couldn’t help but see some strong parallels, and a potential explanation as to why productivity decreased after the award program was implemented.

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Implementing programs that promote employee freedom

As I mentioned in my previous post, one aspect of the award program was the creation of criteria around eligibility. It is not a stretch to assume that many employees — particularly those already showing up on time —  would perceive these criteria as unnecessary rules placed on how and when work is accomplished.

These employees most likely value their autonomy at work, and consequently, will be more reactive toward any perceived restriction in freedom. The leverage they have at their disposal is the withdrawal of some of their effort, leading to poorer firm performance when the precise opposite is desired.

Clearly, there will be a small proportion of workers who rely on strict rules to guide their behavior at work, but hopefully, they will be in the minority. For everyone else, implementing programs that promote rather than restrict employee freedom can ensure that these types of negative consequences on productivity do not occur.

This is yet another critical difference between employee recognition programs that empower employees to be more productive and live up to a company’s core values, and those programs that narrowly constrain behavior and negatively impact productivity.

When have workplace restrictions or empowerment had the largest impact on you?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at irvine@globoforce.com.

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