What “The Elf on the Shelf” can teach you about productivity.

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The Elf on my Shelf isn’t working effectively.


Instead of duping my 5 year-old into behaving like a Christmas angel, it’s giving me a guilt trip. The footless red bandit is a constant reminder about my apparent inability to get my kid to do anything without a Santa Claus-based carrot and stick.


Reminds me of management… But before I get ahead of myself here: Do you know about this phenomenon known as The Elf on the Shelf? 


It’s the physical representation of the ole Christmas tradition: telling children they’ll get jacque squat from Santa if they continue to behave like… well, children. 


Presumably the prospect of Santa dumping coal into children’s stockings wasn’t enough, so we created a commercial myth to arouse constant fear of poor behavior – at least in the month of December.


In short, each day your elf watches and evaluates the kids’ behavior. After the kids go to bed, the elf flies back to the North Pole and gives The Big Guy feedback. Each morning the jet-lagged elf returns to begin the surveillance anew.


In management terms, this behavior modification program is unsustainable. Yes, The Elf may contribute to clean plates and clean bedrooms before Christmas, but most of us continue to raise our children beyond December 25th. The Elf is a December-only short-term fix.


Fear-based management is short-term also. Want to guarantee homes get closed by the end of the calendar year? Just tell employees their bonuses are at stake. No closings… no bonus.


Oh, those homes will close.


How well will they be finished at the time of closing?


That’s a different question. And the honest answer is… “Well, at least we’ll have something to do in January. Finish the house….


This is an example of bad productivity. Productivity delivered by means of fear. It’s not sustainable and it devalues the relationship with employees and customers.


There’s bad profits also. U.S. carriers in the airline industry made virtually all their profits from enraging customers. While operations were essentially break-even, baggage and hidden ticket fees totaled more than $3B in profits. Don’t even get me started on the $3 can of Diet Coke.




Getting away from Bad Productivity tactics and Bad Profitability habits is challenging. The ROI is so quick. The ends justify the means, right?


Losing money flying from Chicago to Toledo?

What if we charged $25 per bag?




Superintendent giving you grief about building a 3500 SF house in the Q4 Midwest weather in 41 working days?

What if we threatened his bonus?



It’s enticing to use this method in the short-term.

It’s easy and it gets the job done.


My 5 year-old has been questioning the validity of our Elf on the Shelf. Questions about his lack of feet. Questions about his plastic hair. Questions about why the elf is such a tattletale.




Good questions all. I’m looking forward to telling him the truth so we can get on with the hard work of growing up together without all the carrot and sticks.


We can leave those to building snowmen.



Bradley Hartmann is founder and El Presidente at Red Angle (www.redanglespanish.com), a  training and consulting firm bridging the English-Spanish language gap in the construction industry. He similblogs these posts at Professional Builder’s Housing Zone.



Categories: Jobsite Leadership

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1 reply

  1. Did you know when the author Carol Aebersold wrote the book she couldn’t get anyone to publish it so she started her own company….

    Sent from my iPhone

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