They myth of working smarter, not harder

Observation #37

carpedia-observation-37It’s not easy for any operation to go through a performance improvement change. Consultants love to say that people should: “Work smarter, not harder,” but that can be a false dichotomy. We aren’t big fans of the expression because we think it subtly implies that you can get something for nothing. Sometimes working smarter does mean working harder. It certainly means you’re working differently.

Take the analogy of losing weight to explain performance improvement. Part of the equation for losing weight is to stop eating foods that aren’t healthy for you (that’s the “work smarter” part), but another key is to be more active and get some exercise, so you burn more calories than you take in (that’s the “work harder” part). If you streamline a process by removing recurring daily obstacles, it can be misleading to suggest that working harder isn’t also sometimes necessary. If a process constantly breaks down leaving a person with little to do, fixing the problem may result in that person working more. The majority of people we observe have no objection to putting in a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay; it’s the recurring problems that frustrate them and that make work tedious. Fixing those problems creates a better environment and may also help foster more employee engagement.

“Working smarter” for a front line manager often means becoming more involved in the scheduling of work and following up on the process. It may be a matter of semantics whether or not this is technically “harder” than previous behaviors. In our experience it usually means a more focused committed diligence is required. To return to the weight-loss analogy, it usually takes more discipline to stick to a healthier regimen. At least initially, managers may find these new requirements “harder” because they aren’t familiar with them and because they change their patterns of behavior. The object is to be a healthier, lean organization, but it’s a mistake to underestimate the actual change required for many people.

A better expression might be: “Work smarter to be more productive.” It’s just not very catchy.