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Lessons in Leadership

What Causes Performance Problems?

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Managers become very frustrated with employee performance problems, but often don't take time to do "detective work" on the cause. Before talking with someone about a performance issue, give some thought to possible reasons for the problem. And here's a key point to consider: as the manager, you may inadvertently be contributing to the situation.

 Every job is the responsibility of two people: the employee, who is accountable for producing desired results, and the manager, who creates the environment in which the employee works. When confronted with a performance issue, the questions below may help you sort things out.

The Key Question
Is it an ABILITY problem or a MOTIVATION problem?

This is the most fundamental question about performance issues, because ability problems and motivation problems need to be addressed quite differently. Here's the differentiating question: If you put a gun to the person's head (which is not recommended), could they produce the correct performance? If they could, then ability is not the issue.

When an employee does not have the ability to do the work, then no amount of recognition, punishment, or encouragement will make it happen. However, if the person has the ability, but is simply not motivated, then training and skills coaching is a waste of time and money.

Ability Questions

1. Does the employee have sufficient resources?
If an employee doesn't have the time, money, equipment, access to people, or whatever, then it may be impossible to deliver desired results no matter how much they want to.

2. Are obstacles or barriers preventing good performance?
When it's difficult to obtain a final decision, get collaboration from another department, or overcome any other obstacle, results may be difficult to accomplish.

3. Have expectations and priorities been clearly explained?
If it's not clear what's desired in terms of quality, quantity, speed, or any other performance dimension, then odds are the expectations won't be met. It's absolutely amazing how often this is the source of performance issues. Although managers usually think they have been clear and specific, the message often doesn't get through for one reason or another.

4. Does the employee have the skills needed to produce desired results?
Have employees had sufficient training? Coaching? Enough time to get through the learning curve? Or are they expected to just "sink or swim"? If someone doesn't have the skills – or enough time to learn the skills – then they can't do the work.

5. Does the employee have the innate talent for this type of work?
When someone is a complete mismatch for the job, then all the skills training in the world will be of no help at all. People wander into career choices in all kinds of ways, with the result that some turn out to be square pegs in round-hole jobs. If this is the case, then the manager needs to kindly help the person find a more suitable type of work.

Motivation Questions

6. Does the employee understand why performance is important?
Manager don't always share reasons with employees. They sometimes assume that the importance of a task or policy should be obvious. Or that just telling someone to do something is sufficient. But assumptions are always dangerous. A simple explanation of the reasons for requests, goals, or work standards will sometimes resolve motivation issues,

7. Is good performance being recognized and rewarded?
When managers want to encourage particular behaviors or results, they need to express appreciation If no one says "thanks" or "good job", then it's easy for an employee to assume that the task isn't very important.

8. Are there negative consequences for poor performance?
Managers sometimes unintentionally reward the very behavior they don't want. How? By failing to take any action to stop it. When you have a problem with someone's behavior or results, you need to tell them. Otherwise, they will likely assume everything is okay. And if you tell them, but nothing changes, then adverse consequences need to follow.

9. Is the employee angry or resentful about something?
When someone is afraid to address an issue directly, they may demonstrate their anger or resentment through their behavior. This is called a "passive-aggressive" response. Angry employees may passive-aggressively express displeasure by putting less energy into their work. If possible, the manager should explore and resolve the cause of the resentment in addition to addressing the performance issue.

10. Is the employee bored or burned out?
Being burned out or bored does not give an employee a "get-out-of-jail-free" card. They are still expected to do the work. But motivated employees produce better results, so managers should work with these employees to help them get reenergized. And if that's not possible, then it may be time to restructure their job or help them consider a different type of work.vOnce you have considered the possible cause of an employee performance problem, then you need to have a coaching discussion with the person.

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