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Productivity vs. Priority Overload: 3 Steps for Leaders

Productivity vs. Priority Overload: 3 Steps for Leaders

by Jake Herway

Story Highlights

  • Many organizations face priority overload in the new year
  • Too many priorities put mental health, burnout and performance at risk
  • Leaders should use the organization's purpose to focus priorities

Most leaders have important, yet lengthy, priority lists following the events of 2020.

The trouble is, priority overload can fuel the flames of burnout, spread teams thin and inhibit goal achievement. Especially considering that many organizations are already grappling with burnout and mental health issues among employees, leaders should not ask what their organization can do, but what it should do.

The first and most essential step to answering this question is ensuring your organization's purpose is inspiring, actionable and credible. Do your employees understand exactly who their organization serves, why their organization matters and their unique role in creating a difference in the world?

If they do, they can capably determine which objectives are most crucial and weed out low-value busy work that would only delay progress on what really matters. That is, employees with a clear sense of purpose can make mission-driven decisions about when to say "no" and when to say "yes" to priorities.

Unfortunately, only 41% of U.S. employees strongly agree that they know what their company stands for and worse, only 22% of employees strongly agree the leaders in their organization have a clear direction for the organization.

Leaders must swiftly intervene to ensure 2021 business objectives are effectively prioritized. Here's an example of how one professional services firm put this into action:

3 Steps for Effective Business Priorities: A Case Study

1. Use purpose to say 'no.'

The first step one professional services firm took was completing a companywide study asking associates about their purpose. The almost unanimous response was, "To make money and generate value for shareholders." This response might seem safe -- but in reality, a purpose like this does not enable effective prioritizing or goal setting.

So it's little wonder that this firm had literally hundreds of different initiatives in play. How many ways can an organization make money? Plenty -- far more than a single workforce can do well. And when Gallup looked closer at how this firm's purpose was influencing its employee experience, one word came back: exhausted.

In most cases, a purpose that's too broad -- or a purpose that is not aimed at a shared, human need -- will leave an organization jumping from one good idea to the next. The result? Unrealized gains and depleted workforce.

The right purpose guides leaders and teams to the right use of time and energy.

2. Use core competencies to focus priorities.

The organization in question then asked itself, "What does our organization do better than anyone else in the world? What is the unique contribution that makes us essential to those we serve?"

Before partnering with Gallup, employees in the organization were not unlike the 59% of American workers who can't see how their workplace differs from its competitors. But then Gallup's companywide survey revealed that many associates believed clients did business with them because they were more pleasant than other firms. That is, many employees viewed their unique core competency as "being nice."

The organization in question then asked itself, "What does our organization do better than anyone else in the world?"

With Gallup's help, the firm dug deeply into operations and discovered what truly differentiated its service: the organization's incredibly capable functional leaders and support staff who were renowned subject matter experts in their functions. Their operational excellence made the organization easy to do business with. Ultimately, this resulted in custom, white-glove, above-and-beyond service.

By setting their sights on ease of doing business and organizational excellence, client leaders were able to reorder, demote, and even remove initiatives that weren't aimed at their core competency in service of their purpose.

3. Collectively review priorities.

With an actionable purpose and unique core competency identified, client leaders were prepared to bring teams together to assess shared and individual priorities -- and to gauge the extent to which each leader's initiatives aligned with the overarching purpose and unique competency. Setting an example for teams companywide, the executive leadership team force-ranked priorities and eliminated actions that did not clearly strengthen their core competency and accelerate their purpose.

Employees with a clear sense of purpose can make mission-driven decisions about when to say "no" and when to say "yes" to priorities.

An exhaustive review of every team member's objectives might seem like a hindrance to productivity. Yes, it will take more time upfront, but it will also create the necessary focus to actually achieve must-win targets. And it will energize team members when they can see how their work matters to the organization's mission and purpose.

For example, if an organization can go from 33% to 80% of employees seeing how the purpose of their company makes their job important, they will get a 29% increase in quality and a 51% reduction in absenteeism -- an even more critical metric to track during a pandemic that necessitates virtual workplaces.

Through this process, priorities actually become, well, priorities -- focused targets that teams advance without burning out. Ultimately, teams are more energized, engaged and have higher mental wellbeing.

No employee is immune to the confusion and disengagement that will ensue from lengthy, shifting to-do lists. It's up to leaders to ensure employees have what they need to be productive, motivated and focused -- not busy, overworked and exhausted.

The best leaders give employees a purpose that's far more than words -- one that focuses employees and stretches them to achieve new possibilities. When leaders fulfill this calling, they lay the foundation for a high-performance work culture that is ready to excel at any challenge, here or on the horizon.

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Bailey Nelson contributed to this article.

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