How highly productive people at work can cause problems for their teams

Business leaders need to rethink what productivity means in the workplace
How highly productive people at work can cause problems for their teams
Photo: Dusan Vranic (AP)
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Being productive on an individual level is great, but it actually becomes counterproductive if you can’t work well with others.

That’s especially true now that most of the work we do today is cross-functional, meaning it involves other parts of the organization and affects other people’s work. Over the past two decades, time spent in collaborative activities at work has increased by over 50%.

The habits of highly productive employees often inadvertently hurt the productivity of their fellow co-workers, resulting in less overall output.

Here’s what I’ve learned about the differences between team and individual productivity after spending the better part of a decade as an operational efficiency consultant.

Team alignment

The reality is that individual productivity is necessary but not sufficient for team productivity. No story illustrates this better than the 2004 Olympics, where the US men’s basketball team was heavily favored to win.

The coach was Larry Brown, the only basketball coach ever to win both an NCAA championship and an NBA championship. The team consisted of basketball superstars like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Tim Duncan, and more—all highly productive players, if you will.

Yet they lost their opening game to Puerto Rico by nineteen points and ended up losing three games in total, the most ever lost by a US men’s basketball team. It was one of the greatest upsets in sports history.

So, how could a team consisting of some of the biggest superstars in basketball history not win gold? It’s because they were not operating well as a team. Each athlete was playing in a way that maximized his own output instead of maximizing the collective output.

The same concept applies to the workplace. Having individually productive employees is great, but it’s not enough. Team productivity requires collaboration, coordination, and sometimes sacrificing one’s own productivity for the greater good of the team. And as you might imagine, highly productive people sometimes struggle with that last part.

They might have their own highly-productive way of working, but if it’s not aligned with how the rest of the team works, it’s not going to do much good.

In more real terms, if one person finds it most efficient to track their work on a spreadsheet but the rest of the team is using a shared work management tool, they’re not helping the cause—no matter how productive they are. Really, they’re just creating extra work for themselves and their team by adding to what I call the scavenger hunt.

Where work lives, aka the scavenger hunt

The scavenger hunt occurs when you’re looking for something to complete your work—a file, document, checklist, past message—but you just can’t remember where it is.

Was it in an email? A text? A Slack thread? Was that in a direct message or a channel? Which channel? Or maybe it’s in a Google Doc...but where’s the link?

Suddenly, what should have taken a few seconds is taking five, ten, maybe even fifteen minutes. Perhaps you can’t find the information at all and you have to pull in someone else to look for it. Now their time is being wasted, too.

Sound familiar?

It’s a very real (and extremely common) problem. Studies have shown that employees spend nearly 30% of their time at work searching for information. With the influx of new collaboration tools in the workplace, this percentage is surely on the rise.

The scavenger hunt is a result of people operating in their own ways but having to work together as a team. And highly productive people are often major contributors to the confusion, as they’re pumping out more messages, emails, and assets than most.

What I’ve found is that when you’re trying to get a lot of work done, your natural inclination is to get things off your plate as quickly as possible.

  • Need to send something to a co-worker? A quick text message and it’s done.
  • Delegating a task? Let them know in a meeting and get on with the rest of your work.
  • Finished an important document? Email it to the team and call it a day.

These actions are optimized for the speed of transfer of information. And while they might make you feel productive in the moment, they’re likely bringing your team down.

When everyone is sending and storing information in whatever way is fastest for them, it becomes difficult and time-consuming to retrieve that information later, adding to the endless scavenger hunt.

The solution is to instead optimize, team-wide, for the retrieval of information.

Slack? Teams? Email? Notion? Optimize for retrieval

Optimizing for the retrieval of information ultimately comes down to spending an extra few minutes up front to send and store information where it belongs. This might take more time in the short term, but it might add up to just a few extra seconds—and in the long run it will save hours for you and your team by alleviating the scavenger hunt.

The best way to get started? Align as a team on when to use certain tools so that everyone is clear on what type of information lives where.

One example is separating communication into specific tools. I recommend that teams use email solely for external communication (like engaging with clients and third parties) and keep all internal communication (with your co-workers) in tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams.

Now when you need to find a past message, you know which tool to look in depending on the type of information. It limits those situations where you’re looking for something in email only to realize an hour later that it was in a text message.

There are nuances to all of this, of course. In my new book, Come Up for Air, I explain how most companies will want to separate information into five different categories of tools:

  • External communication goes in email.
  • Internal communication goes into a tool like Slack or Microsoft Teams.
  • Task- or project-related information—work that needs to be done now or in the future—goes in a work-management tool like Asana, Clickup,, or Jira (among others).
  • Recurring processes—repeatable work that happens frequently—are stored in a process management tool like Process Street or Trainual (among others).
  • And general company information is stored in a knowledge base tool like Coda, Notion, or Guru (among others).

You’ll notice that the specific software choice is largely irrelevant. People often obsess over finding the best tool for a given situation, and the reality is that most tools nowadays have similar features and provide similar benefits. What’s far more important is choosing one tool in each category and then aligning on when and how it’s used in conjunction with the others.

Regardless of how you choose to do it, the goal should be the same: align as a team on when and how tools are used so that everyone can quickly find the information they need to get work done. Then adopt the mindset of optimizing for retrieval—take the extra time up front to make sure you’re sending and storing information in the right place so you can make everyone’s lives easier (and more productive) in the future.

If the same rules and norms apply to all, then the productivity of one individual never has to come at the expense of everyone else on the team.

Nick Sonnenberg is the founder of the operational efficiency firm Leverage and the author of Come Up for Air: How Teams Can Leverage Systems and Tools to Stop Drowning in Work.