Leaders Boost Productivity

It’s broadly accepted, I think, that good leaders boost the productivity of their people, when compared to those same people working under less-good leaders.

Productivity can be a dangerous measure – there are poor leadership practices that can bring about a spike in measured output. That spike doesn’t make those poor leadership practices any less poor.

For example, your boss might threaten to fire the lowest performing people, inducing a flurry of fear-based activity. Or he might yell, getting a scurry of movement. Or he might demand longer hours from salaried staff.

Threats, yelling and demands are all poor leadership practices. Their long term effects are universally negative – the best people start to look for better jobs elsewhere – and nobody should mistake activity for progress, nor mistake working long hours for being more effective per hour worked.

Much more effective is the boss who can inspire, encourage, motivate and guide. These are also much harder. After all, any infant can yell – and many, including in senior management, do. Can you inspire people as easily as you can yell at them?

So, what do you actually do if you want to inspire, motivate, etc? What’s the formula?

Based on my reading of Csikszentmihalyi, I’d say the good boss motivates (that is, leads) by providing people with “the preconditions of flow“.


Flow is the “subjective state that people report when they are completely involved in something to the point of forgetting time, fatigue, and everything else but the activity itself. … Attention is fully invested in the task at hand, and the person functions at his or her fullest capacity.” [emphasis added]

The Preconditions of Flow are:

  1. A sense of control
  2. Clear goals
  3. Match between skill and challenge
  4. Feedback on progress

As a leader, you can help with #1, and you are directly responsible for providing #2, 3, and 4.

Think about the best bosses you’ve worked for – the ones who were truly leaders. Odds are, they challenged you (but not so much that you couldn’t handle it), set clear goals, and gave you supportive feedback on your work. You probably also recall that, when you worked for a good boss, you had a sense of control in your daily work.

By providing the preconditions of flow, effective leaders naturally boost the productivity of their people – without yelling or threats – and in ways that increase the workers’ satisfaction, output, and happiness.

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