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Why Is Focusing on Performance So Difficult?


Tue Aug 22 2017

Why Is Focusing on Performance So Difficult?-3830fb08212796b04c620fb19610ef8dcbcf100f8bbcc10445ee06d3c0bb7aad

I am perplexed by something and would appreciate your thoughts. Frequently, I encounter talent development professionals whose actions indicate an assumption that building capability and enhancing performance are the same thing. This attitude shows itself in two ways: 

  • A talent development professional receives a request from a manager to improve the leadership skills of their team. In response to that request, the talent development professional asks questions about the specific skills that are required rather than inquiring about the performance outcomes that are expected on the job.

  • A talent development professional in the field responds to a request to deliver some type of learning solution and moves ahead to design and deliver that solution without taking time to assess the readiness of the work environment to support the skills that will be developed. 

    It is as though learning alone will yield performance results—which it does not. There is no business or performance measure that improves because of what people know; these measures improve because of what people do with what they know. 

What Is the Difference Between Capability and Performance? 

Enhancing capability or skill is a learning outcome. It means that people have the capability to perform in some manner. It does not mean that they will. How many of us have the capability to perform activities such as biking or playing bridge, but do not use those capabilities for many reasons? The same is true for every individual we support through our developmental programs and initiatives.  


A performance outcome occurs when people take what they know and turn it into what they do on the job. And, of course, making the conversion from learning to doing requires a work environment that supports the capability that was developed. As Geary Rummler famously put it, “You pit a good employee against a bad system and the system will win most every time.” 

Recently, I was talking with Katie Wright of Voya Financial, who shared how she, and others, clarify the difference between learning and performance with this comment: skill. . .will. . .hill. In other words, people develop skills but then need both the will (motivation) to apply that skill, and ability to overcome any hill (obstacle) in the work environment that could impede application. Only then can performance result from capability that has been developed.  

Back to My Question—Why Is Focusing on Performance So Difficult? 

We know that performance is what people do on the job. We also know that, too frequently, people acquire capability that they never use on the job. Yet learning solutions are implemented as though they alone will yield results. As talent development professionals, we need to make performance—and not just learning—our business. And we do that in two ways: 

1. We keep clear in our minds the difference between skill and performance. When a manager requests that we enhance skills of a group of people, we ask questions to determine what performance the manager seeks before focusing on the skills that have been identified.


2. We view the building of capability as a means to the end, not the end. Our end goal is to enhance on-the-job performance that benefits the organization. We need to know when the work environment will not support skills we plan to develop. We need to partner with the leaders who can work with us to ensure skills will transfer to the workplace. And when a leader is unwilling to be so engaged, we need to state our belief that learning alone is unlikely to yield the desired results. 

I welcome your thoughts on why the actions I noted in this post do not occur routinely in our field. Let’s start a conversation.

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