This week, we got two back-to-back questions about productivity.

The first: How do I figure out if my report’s lack of productivity is my fault or theirs?

The second: My team is working with a contractor who is spending about three times as long as we all predicted to do his work. The quality of the work is fine, and he’s not missing any deadlines, but he’s burning through hours like crazy. How do I ask him to work faster?

Let’s see if we can answer both of these at once. 

Andy: First things first: I think we’re all working at a different set pace right now — I am, that’s for sure — so let’s go easy on ourselves. Also: it’s likely both of your faults! You have a part in productivity and they do, too.

Emma: Because so much of productivity is expectations! Big, juicy, explicit ones that you tell everyone over and over again. Expectations are the only proactive tool we have to get the production machine up off the ground and cranking along. After that, everything is reactionary. Which isn’t a bad thing…

Andy: It’s inevitable. You’re always going to have to react.

Emma: But let’s take any little head start we can.

Andy: With your high-hours contractor, the initial expectations conversation might have sounded something like, “We’ve budgeted 100 hours to develop the curriculum. Here’s a link to a spreadsheet where I’ve mapped those hours to the project. Take a look and let me know if I’m off.” Hopefully that first convo happened. If it didn’t, you’re heading into this next one from behind.

Emma: We’ve all been there. And it can be awkward no matter what. I feel mean and judgey when I ask another person to pick it up, like I’m not respecting their process. And what if I’m in the wrong and totally misjudged the timeline? It’s why the best managers (and coaches and teachers) know how to tailor their style to different people — tough love with some, gentle nudges with another.

Andy: Working with a contractor makes that challenging because you don’t know what approach will be most effective. This person is a stranger. I think I would try for a mix of firm expectations and warm understanding.

6 Good Ways to Say, “You’re Too Slow!”

You can see how having had an expectations conversation makes these all feel very seamless. When you’ve done that, these talks are as simple as verbally pointing to the expectations, verbally pointing to reality, and then adding a question or an offer of help.

Start with your Yikes!
“Yikes, I’m running the numbers and we’re trending almost 2X on hours for the month. Can we talk through what’s happening?”

Get a gut check
“I saw your invoice come through for 60 hours for the first quarter of the curriculum. I’m worried about the cost for this project — remember, we only budgeted 100 hours total. Is that doable?”

Offer to coach
“Hey, you’re not where you need to be to hit your sales goal for the month. How can I help you get there?”

Cut right to the problem
“We’re 7 weeks in and you’re still not hitting the targets we set for your workload. What’s getting in the way?”

Start a collaboration
“Would you like to take a look at your numbers for the month and figure out some strategies that will help you hit your goal?”

Admit you never set expectations
“I know we didn’t talk about hours at the beginning of the project and I’d like to get aligned now on the rest of the work. I realized that we’re a lot further along in the budgeted hours than we are in the project and I didn’t share those expectations with you. Can we map the rest out together now?”

Emma: My fingers and toes and very soul are crossed that all your contractor needs is one quick course-correcting conversation and everything snaps into place. Likely, though, this will require ongoing maintenance.

Andy: It’s the great wonder of starting a conversation. Who knows what you’ll discover!

Emma: Truly! I’ve had this conversation and gotten blank stares in return — they had no clue. I’ve received long bulleted lists of systemic inefficiencies; I’ve learned about major crises at home. I’ve gotten nonsense excuses and devastated tears and surly, “Yeah, wells…”. Which is all to say: It might be them, it might be you, and it might be one of a kajillion other reasons why someone’s productivity is low. I mean, we’re eight months into a pandemic that is currently as bad as it’s ever been. It could also be that?

Andy: It’s such a tricky line to walk. Maximizing productivity at the expense of human beings is an evil we are all too understanding of. For what? Profits!? And yet… I’ve had a lot of these productivity conversations. As a manager, my whole job felt like it was to deliver the productivity.

It helped me to reframe it this way: My job was to help my team accomplish their jobs. And there are more levers to pull than just chanting, “Faster, faster, faster,” like some kind of frantic metronome. Some of those levers are within your control, and they’re yours to pull. Others are things you can’t control, but you can impact.

Emma: Questioning if it’s all your fault sounds like a little bit of guilty insecurity — which are some of the normal feelings we face when we’re confronted with a person’s low productivity. It’s absolutely worth probing that, and finding the ways your leadership or influence is hindering the work getting done.

Andy: There’s another guilt you might be facing: the classic Quality vs. Quantity showdown. These two variables don’t have to be linked. I know amazing editors who edit like lightning and are also six thousand times better than slower editors. So, when I approach speed as a manager, I set aside the false idea that going faster means worse work and start looking for what levers I can pull. It’s typically a mix of things: confidence and skill, blockades, stoppage time, environment.

Emma: We’re all such complex little creatures.

Andy: Lol we don’t make anything easy. This list of questions helps me take a kaleidoscope to the problem and see it in a new, and hopefully more useful way. Let us know how it goes!

Where to Find Productivity

Use these questions to help you find the hidden productivity on your team. Gut-check which ones you can control as a manager, and which will be an ongoing collaboration between you and your report.

Confidence & Skill

What are you doing to build them up or tear them down? How much recovery time is needed after feedback from you or a conversation with you? Are you using the 5 Rules of Good Feedback?

Do they know what they’re doing? (We’ve done a whole newsletter on developmental levels and how to assess them, so you can pinpoint what kind of support and coaching to offer.)

Does the team know what productivity looks like to you? That is, have you told them in multiple formats consistently, so much so that they’d be able to mirror those productivity expectations back to you?

Is there any added unnecessary pressure? Are you adding pressure? Can you remove some pressure?

Do they feel confident enough to make quick decisions? What causes them to hesitate? Is there a protocol, a playbook, or a way to train their brain to think through the situation quickly, accurately, and decisively?


Are you providing them the context, instruction, assistance, and resources they need? Every email or meeting they have to conduct to get these things from you is time they’re not “working” on the work at hand — similarly, if you hold a lot of info and you’re not available, they’re going to be burning time trying to figure it out on their own.

Are you interrupting them? Interruptions include: fire drills, progress updates, Slacks, phone calls, Mandatory Fun, meetings, chit chat, etc.

How much of their time do they have to do their work? Places to look: How many meetings are they in each day/week/month/quarter? What other “housekeeping” tasks do they have to do and how much time do those take? Is their time spliced up a lot?

Is there a “set point” they’ve never crossed that they need to learn to cross? Have they ever tried to go faster? How can you make it safe for them to try a new pace?

Is there anything stopping them — physically, mentally, or otherwise — from doing their work?

Stoppage time

Are you often re-prioritizing things?

At what points in the project do they have to wait? Can they work during those waits? Is the project stalled when they’re stalled?

Are they waiting on decision makers? Can any of these decisions be made by them, or made for them in advance?


What tools can you get them, such as subscriptions, hardware, etc., that will help make the job quicker or easier?

What economies of scale can you take advantage of? Are there tasks that can be split off and specialized? Is there pre-work or post-work that someone else could do?

What is the work environment like? You might not be able to control if music is playing on the overhead speakers, or if the team is distractingly loud and chatty, but you might be able to control letting people work in other rooms, or use some team budget to buy everyone noise-cancelling headphones.

Who else is on their projects? Are there any common denominators — clients, departments, complexities, rushes, special orders, etc. — that cause slowdowns or stoppages?

Is there anything new or different about this situation that might slow them down?

Good Boss Achievement Stickers: Mixed Feelings Edition

Andy: We have some thrilling and sad and exciting news: we’ll no longer have a weekly set of Good Boss Achievement Stickers.

Emma: That’s the sad part.

Andy: Our incredible illustrator, Matt, scored a very cool new gig. We’re going to miss his work dearly, but mostly we’re thrilled for him — especially because The Bent played a part.

Emma: Yes! Andy and I have been developing an online course on how to write a killer resume and cover letter. Matt was our first beta tester a few months ago and… it worked! He got the interviews! He landed the job!

Andy: The most exciting part is the course is officially launching in the next few weeks. We have a few more open spots for beta testers between now and then — if you’re in the mood (and have the time) to go hard on your resume and cover letter, we’d love your feedback. Shoot us a note at for more details.

Emma: Everyone else, stay tuned. And wish Matt best of luck!

Cartoon version of a Norman Rockwell painting of a man drawing in front of a tablet and computer