So here's the paradox: Americans are working 10 percent fewer total hours than they did before the recession, due to layoffs and shortened workdays, but we're producing nearly as many goods and services as we did back in the full employment days of 2007.
There's a simple, visceral reason for the gains, Mr. Chairman, and it's called fear. If colleagues around us are being laid off and cut back, we can't help worrying that our jobs may be next. Our survival instincts kick in, and we push ourselves harder, so we're not the next one to go. We get more done, which sounds like good news and certainly explains higher productivity.
But is it good news? Is more, bigger, faster for longer necessarily better?
Americans already put in more hours than workers in any country in the world - and that doesn't include the uncounted shadow work that technology makes possible after the regular workday ends.
Here's the bigger point. Just as you'll eventually go broke if you make constant withdrawals from your bank account without offsetting deposits, you will also ultimately burn yourself out if you spend too much energy too continuously at work without sufficient renewal.
In our own work in companies, we've consistently observed that the longer and more continuously people work, the less marginal return they get from each additional hour — and the more alienated and disengaged they become.
Getting more tasks accomplished — say writing and responding to scores of emails in between other activities — may technically represent higher productivity, but it doesn't necessarily mean adding greater value.
Instead, the ethic of more, bigger, faster ultimately generates value that is narrow, shallow and short-term.
Did Toyota do itself or its customers any good by finding a way to accelerate production and expand sales over the past decade? As its president Akio Toyoda acknowledged in a speech to his own leaders: "Some executives just got too big headed and focused too excessively on profit." What suffered was the reliability and quality of Toyota's cars — a reputation that took years to build but only days to unravel.
Did it serve us well that bankers and brokers sold an unprecedented number of mortgages during the years of the housing boom, with minimal background checks, or that they created all kinds of new financial instruments that generated huge profits before they crashed and burned in 2008?
When you're running as fast as you can, what you sacrifice is attention to detail, and time to step back, reflect on the big picture, and truly think strategically and long-term.
If you operate at high intensity, under high pressure, for long hours, you inexorably burn down your own best resources — your energy reservoir — and you begin to rely instead on the physiology of fight or flight — adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. The prefrontal cortex shuts down in fight or flight, your perspective narrows, and your primitive instincts begin to take over.
We need a better way of working. It's not about generating short-term, superficial productivity gains by using fear as a motivator and then squeezing people to their limits. Rather, it depends on helping leaders to understand that more is not always better, and that rest, renewal, reflection, and a long-term perspective are also critical to fueling value that lasts.
If you're a leader, here's where you need to start: Stop measuring your people by the hours they put in, and focus instead on the value they produce. Make that your primary measurement. Then encourage your people to intermittently renew during the day (and on weekends, and over vacations), so that when they're working, they're really working.
That's the path to true productivity.