Solving The Performance Problem Puzzle

Management is about getting things done through and with others. When things aren’t getting done the way that they should, it can be a real challenge to turn the situation around. And there is usually a pretty steep price to pay in the process.

An employee performance problem isn’t just the manager’s problem – although at times it may feel that way. It is really everybody’s problem, because it can affect the whole team. The rest of the staff can end up having to pick up the slack. If it is a work performance issue, somebody has to do it, right? It can have a real impact on team productivity.

It is also big time drain for the manager. There is only so much time to go around. The time that the manager spends working to help solve the performance problem is time that they can’t use elsewhere.

But maybe the biggest cost is an emotional one. Performance problems can take a pretty steep emotional toll – on everybody who is involved. It is not unusual for a manager to carry that emotional baggage home with them, to think about – maybe even obsess about – the issue outside of work. They literally, lose sleep.

And let’s not forget about what the issue may be doing to the employee. Sometimes, when we are working with an ongoing performance problem we can start to lose awareness of how the issue is affecting the employee. We can start to see them as being the problem, rather than as having a problem to solve. When we do that we can end up on a slippery slope that can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rather than working with the employee to solve the problem together, we can end up creating an “Us versus Them” conflict, which is probably not going to end well. It can leave both the manager and the employee feeling as if they are victims.

Performance problems come in different flavors:

  • Type 1: Substandard Work Performance
  • Type 2: Problem Work Behavior
  • Type 3: Not performing up to potential

Stop The Pain

There are two parts to a successful resolution. The first part – the most direct part – is to get them to improve what they need to improve, or stop what they need to stop. Simply put: Stop the pain. The substandard performance improves, the problem behavior goes away, they start performing up to their potential.

 Maintain (or improve) the Relationship

Ideally, there’s another part to a successful resolution. Maintain, or even improve the relationship. Managers and employees are dependent on one another. Think about the impact that your boss has on your life – how they affect what you do on a daily basis and how you feel about coming to work. If you talk to the people in HR about why employees quit their jobs, you’ll hear from many of them that it is directly related to their manager. A 2007 study at Florida State University involving 700 employees affirmed what we already knew. It is an old saying – people don’t leave their jobs they leave their manager.

It is not a one-way street. A problem employee can make a manager’s life a living nightmare. Since you as a manager are dependent on the employee – it is in your interest to work to create a positive relationship. One that is characterized by:

  • Rapport
  • Understanding
  • Trust

Both stopping the pain and maintaining the relationship are essential for a successful resolution of the problem. Let’s take first things first. In this post I want to focus on a key aspect of stopping the pain.

The first step is in assessing the cause of the problem. There is a saying in architecture that form follows function. Things should look like what they are supposed to do. The best way to resolve a performance problem depends on what you are trying to influence – the cause of the problem. Imagine how it would be if you were feeling unwell and you went to your family doctor. Before you got two words out of your mouth he / she handed you a bottle of pills and told you to “take two every four hours”. Ridiculous! We all recognize that the best treatment for any symptom depends on the underlying disease or cause.

It is the same way with a performance problem. Effectively solving an employee performance problem depends on your ability to identify its underlying cause.

  • Why is the employee doing what they are doing?
  • Why aren’t they doing what you want them to?

Diagnosing the cause of the problem is the most important step. Everything else – all the actions that you take to resolve the issue – should flow from that diagnosis.

To help you diagnose, let me give you 5 possible reasons for performance problems.

  1. Lack of Knowledge, Skill or Experience

All of those contribute to a lack of ability for whatever the task at hand is.

I know that it sounds completely obvious but you have to know how to perform a task before we can have a reasonable expectation that you will be able to perform it successfully. You must have the required knowledge, skill and experience.

While it sounds obvious, we can overlook it for a number of reasons

  • We assume they should know – but they don’t
  • They Think That They Know – But Don’t
  • We approach it from with a Global Bias: They are good at other tasks so we assume they will be good at this task
  • Telling isn’t Training: You’ve told them what to do, but you haven’t trained them how to do it.
  • They have a lack of aptitude for this particular task.          

Strategy: Once you have determined that the cause of the problem is because of a lack of knowledge, skill, or experience the solution is pretty straightforward. You’ve got to teach them how to do it. Setting clear expectations and then providing training and coaching are the keys. Break the assignment into smaller pieces that are manageable and then supervise closely.

2) Lack of Awareness

Another possible cause is that they simply may not be aware that they should be doing a particular task or engaging in a particular behavior. There is a great deal of data that points to managers and employees not always being aligned in their understanding of expectations. How have you communicated the expectation? Could there be ambiguity? Might they have misunderstood?

Strategy: If it is a lack of awareness – great! That is a problem that is easily solved. Build the expectation into their performance plan. Identify a specific Key Result Area, set a goal for it and then manage the plan. Build in checkpoints and alignment discussions to make sure that the message is clear.

3) Lack of Motivation

The first two possible causes are pretty straightforward to deal with. A more challenging potential cause to resolve is the employee’s motivation. I am not talking about general engagement as much as I am talking about task specific motivation. How motivated is the employee to engage in the behaviors that you want? Again, just like with knowledge and skill you need to look at motivation from a task specific perspective.

Motivation is unique to the individual. What motivates me isn’t necessarily the same thing that motivates you. But one thing we both have in common is that we tend to do things for our own reasons and motivations. As you are looking at, and trying to assess an employee performance problem, ask yourself: What is in it for them? Why should they do it? Are they rewarded for not doing it in some fashion?

One of the very loud signals of a potential motivation cause is a change in performance or behavior. Have they been successful at the task in the past? Have they always followed the policy up until now? Is the problem behavior something new? All of those changes raise the possibility of a motivation problem.

Strategy: There is no simple answer for a motivational issue, but there are better strategies. Telling them they need to do it – or else – may get compliance, but it is unlikely to lead to commitment. Directing them how to perform the task will just be a waste of your time and theirs. They already know how to do it. The better strategy is to engage them in a dialogue to uncover the reasons behind their lack of interest in performing that particular task. Point out the performance issue in a tactful way, express an interest in helping them improve and then get them talking about their perspective. When they’ve clarified their concerns don’t prescribe a solution. It will be more likely to “stick” if the solution comes from them. Ask them how they plan on resolving the issue. For more ideas about motivational issues take a look at http://www.drjosephreed.com/the-single-most-…loyee-motivation/.

4) Lack of Confidence

Another reason that employees may not do what they are supposed to do is that they lack confidence in their knowledge and ability to do it successfully. There is a difference between confidence and competence. You’ll see this play out most of the time as employees are learning how to perform a new task. As they work on it, as they start to understand how to do it, you will often find that their knowledge and their ability progress faster than their confidence in their ability.

  • When that happens they will ask questions that you know they already have the answers to
  • They will appear to be hesitant to try new things or take risks
  • They will ask you for advice and direction – despite the fact they know how to perform the activity
  • They will doubt them themselves

Strategy: If confidence is lacking, the manager’s job is to help build it back up. You can’t do that by providing answers, solving their problems or providing direction about how to do things. It’s also not a good idea to throw the team member into the deep end of the pool and expect them to be able to swim. Don’t expect them to work through it on their own. When an associate lacks confidence they engage in self-doubt. That self-doubt may actually prevent them from using the knowledge and skill that they have. It can mask their confidence. What you need to do in those circumstances is to engage the employee in a dialogue. Ask them questions and get them to arrive at their own solutions. Get them to hear their own voice as they solve their own problems. That will build confidence.

So far I’ve identified 4 possible causes of performance problems:Knowledge/Skill, Awareness, Motivation and Confidence


But there is one more reason that you have to consider.

5) Is it out of their control?

You shouldn’t hold people accountable for issues that are out of their control. Ask yourself:

  • Do they have the necessary resources?
  • Is it the system itself that is preventing them from performing?
  • Are there conflicting expectations getting in the way?

Strategy: If it really is out of their control, then it is up to you to make the situation right:

  • Remove The Obstacle
  • Provide The Resources
  • Develop A Work Around
  • Change The Expectation

In this post I’ve described 5 possible causes for employee performance problems. The first step in solving a performance problem is to identify its cause. It is the most important step in the process. If you misdiagnose the cause you will be solving the wrong problem.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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