Efficiency v. Effectiveness in the Workplace – Which Would You Prefer?

This week in HR, let’s look at effectiveness in the workplace. There’s a lot of talk and misunderstanding about what effectiveness is on a practical level. Peter Drucker, a renowned management consultant, puts it very simply:

“Efficiency is doing things right. Effectiveness is doing the right things.”

Another quote from my father-in-law is a little more cynical, but has a similar ring, “It takes just as much time to do things wrong as it does to do things right” – Joseph Taylor. He had a ton of other less savory quotes that he used to chastise his crews of construction workers, painters, ditch-diggers, drywall hangers, and everyone else. I’ll spare my readers.

There is a difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Managers who understand this subtle difference are miles ahead of those who do not. When you know the problem precisely, you can properly strategize solutions, offer targeted correction and professional development opportunities, and communicate team progress to executives for visibility into the workforce.

Peter Drucker contends that without effectiveness, talent and intelligence won’t get you anywhere. Effectiveness is essentially the deployment of talent and intelligence in a direction that creates synergy for your business. But it’s methodical, thank God – so those of us who don’t naturally exhibit effective work habits can build those habits necessary for effective work. There are at least 5 skills and discipline that help you be more effective in the workplace:

  1. Time Management (lots of online training resources on this topic – look to Rumble or to Vimeo, even TikTok)
  2. Focus (this just takes discipline, it’s like meditation, once you know quiet peace, you don’t fight it; once you know productivity on discrete priorities, multi-tasking looks less and less optimal)
  3. Make your unique contribution (this is about being engaged and having a sense of belonging to the organization. Thinking critically about process, people, or products – all of these are optimized when you are connected to the organization and to the work)
  4. Maximize strengths (know thyself – this oracular imperative is especially true for leaders. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses and those of others should help leaders identify and fill critical skill gaps and complementary personalities and talents.
  5. Make sound decisions (effective decision-making is much harder said than done. I say most successful endeavors are purposeful, driven by MVV, Mission Vision & Values. Always start there – What is it we do? Does this fit the mission? Where are we going? Does this violate values or take us closer to achieving our vision?)

Let’s take this a step further to organizational effectiveness. When I think about organization effectiveness, I think the question is “What has to be done?” Asking what has to be done and taking the question seriously is crucial for managerial success. This is beyond job descriptions. This is a delivery plan.

The answer to the question “What needs to be done?” almost always contains more than one urgent task. A client of mine, an fractional executive who manages major turnarounds for businesses across multiple industries is someone I look at as a shining example of someone who does not splinter himself. He concentrates on one task if at all possible.

I have never encountered an executive who remains effective while tackling more than two tasks at a time. So, after asking what needs to be done, the effective leader sets priorities and sticks to them. For a CEO, the priority task might be redefining the company’s mission. For a department head, it might be redefining the unit’s relationship with headquarters. Other tasks, no matter how important or appealing, are postponed. However, after completing the original top-priority task, the effective leader resets priorities rather than moving on to number two from the original list. He asks, “What must be done now?” This yields new and different priorities.

Effectiveness is doing the right things, yes, but you must understand what the right thing is in order to understand if the employee or organization is effective. And this is the point, clear business objectives and outcomes are as critical to understanding one’s mission as are determinants of behavior to achieving vision. Having priorities and operating in a planned, deliberate manner are also imperative practices of effectiveness.

I love the topic of effectiveness in the workplace, because it almost always upends conventions – like the obsession with employee time worked. An inspired employee, working 20 hours a week will be more effective than any 50-hour-per-week, burned out and disengaged worker.