Success Builders Inc. Article of The Month
February, 2001
What's The Real Issue?

I love it when I'm working with a client who is willing and able to cut to the chase of what's on her mind. So I knew we were in for a lively coaching session last week when my client Donna started the call by saying, "I hate my job; I hate my staff; they're driving me crazy and I'm ready to quit."

"Wow!" I said. "Tell me how you REALLY feel!" Once we had a good laugh about this, the tension had dissipated to the point where Donna was ready to step back and more objectively explain the frustration she was feeling. What she described was an array of performance problems, involving a number of staff members, that were showing up in a variety of different ways.

Since Donna is relatively new to her organization, she is still in the process of getting her arms around what's working and not working within her team. As is true for many newly appointed leaders, she inherited a diverse group of people with a broad range of tenure, experience, and skill levels. She also walked into a situation that hasn't had any strong leadership for a while, so there are all kinds of problems on the table and the clock is ticking around getting them resolved.

"So what are the issues that are getting in the way?" I asked her. "That's just it," Donna replied. "I'm not sure what the issues are. All I know is, there's a bunch of them, and the bottom line is that this group is simply not performing the way that they need to be."

Solving the puzzle of performance problems is no easy feat. The complexity of organizational life makes it difficult to tease out what's getting in the way when you're trying to manage a large group of people who just don't seem to get it. And while it's tempting to want to lump everyone on the team into the same category, the reality of what's behind their performance deficits is usually a bit more complicated than that.

At its core, every team is a collection of individuals, and those individuals come at the job in a variety of different ways. So it's useful to have a model for analyzing what's at the root of a situation in which a staff member is not performing at the level that the job requires. Here's a simple structure for analyzing what kind of issue you're dealing with:

  1. Is it a training problem? The shorthand for this situation is that the individual can't do, but can learn. If this is what's contributing to the performance problem, it's time to take a look at how you are providing skills development and learning opportunities for your staff. Are your training programs adequate? Are they up to date? Do they work?

  2. Is it a motivation problem? This one can be captured with the model, can do, but doesn't. We've all seen people who are simply going through the motions, even though they are otherwise skilled and capable of doing the job. Perhaps they're no longer feeling challenged, or maybe they can't see how their roles fit into the larger picture of the organization. The key here is to understand what your staff members are intrigued by, what would arouse their natural curiosity, and to help them to view their jobs with fresh eyes. Maybe it's time to move them into a new role, or challenge them with a novel project. Dealing with motivation problems starts with a conversation, and a genuine invitation to the employee to talk about what's missing in this picture.

  3. Is it a selection/job match problem? Here, the situation is that the individual can't do, and can't readily learn. All the good training programs and motivational techniques in the world won't make up for those situations where your staff members don't have the aptitude or natural abilities to perform the roles they are assigned to. If the problem is a poor match, it's best to work with people to identify other jobs in the organization that they would be better suited for, and yes, sometimes to help them find other roles outside of the business. Better yet, consider doing some targeted pre-hire testing that would help you to gauge whether your employment candidates have the right raw materials before offering them jobs in the first place.

  4. Is it a teamwork/collaboration problem? This one goes by the label, can do, but can't accomplish alone. The sophistication level of most businesses today requires strong collaboration to yield strong performance. If your organizational structure is creating a silo effect or gets in the way of people working in an interdependent fashion, it could negatively affect their ability to get the job done. Take a look at the extent to which your structure, role assignments and management practices truly support teamwork and collaboration.

One additional area to explore as you go about ferreting out the causes of poor performance has to do with how well you have defined performance standards in the first place. While it's true that today's business environment is characterized by constant change, it remains awfully difficult for most folks to hit a moving target. Make sure that your staff members understand what's expected of them, even when those expectations have to do with plowing forward into unknown territory.

Next time you find yourself having to manage to some thorny performance problems, resist the urge to jump straight to solutions. Stop, take a breath, and ask yourself, "What's the real issue?"

In case you missed previous Success Builders Articles of the Month, here are links to past issues.
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