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I Guess the Basics Aren't So Basic: Performance 101

Published: Thursday, October 4, 2018

Lately I've been disappointed. I've observed a lot of wasted potential. I've witnessed inefficiencies that would require almost no effort, no resources, and no money to correct. I've seen mistakes made -- and remade -- that relate to myths that were busted long ago. I can attest to the high costs of rework, and in many cases the high costs of re-recruiting, re-hiring, re-onboarding, and re-training. This isn't good enough! We can work better!

Most of the advantages any of us can enjoy from improved effectiveness at work are within our grasp. Looking broadly at performance within companies and organizations, there is a great deal of time-tested, peer-verified, quantitative research that solidly points us in the right direction. Exhibit one: any institution of higher education worth its salt will refer to Robert Mager and Peter Pipe in the freshman Management course. Our very own ATD (or ASTD back in 2015 just prior to the name change) recognized Dr. Mager with an award for Distinguished Contribution to the Field of Human Resource Development. This is the list of seven performance issues discoverd after extensive analysis, which are published as part of Analyzing Performance Problems.

  1. They don't know what's expected of them
  2. They don't have the tools, space, or authority
  3. They don't get feedback about performance quality
  4. They're punished when they do it right
  5. They're rewarded when they do it wrong
  6. They're ignored whether they do it right or wrong
  7. They don't know how to do it

Exhibit two: over 20 years of research with over 25,000 managers (who managed hundreds of thousands of employees) resulted in the book Why Employees Don't Do What They're Supposed to and What to do About It, by Frederick Fournies. Here's the exhaustive (end-all, be-all) list of the causes of performance problems. 

  1. They don't know why they should do it
  2. They don't know how to do it
  3. They don't know what they are supposed to do
  4. They think your way will not work
  5. They think their way is better
  6. They think something else is more important
  7. There is no positive consequence to them for doing it
  8. They think they are doing it
  9. They are rewarded for not doing it
  10. They are punished for doing what they are supposed to do
  11. They anticipate a negative consequence for doing it
  12. There is no negative consequence to them for poor performance
  13. Obstacles beyond their control
  14. Their personal limits prevent them from performing
  15. Personal problems
  16. No one could do it

You can see the similarities and the overlap. We've already solved it -- the message simply hasn't "gone viral" yet, and our own human nature tends to keep getting in the way. As a learning community, I'm confident we can spread this insight far and wide. The key is keeping it simple and diligently helping others  correct course when they are drifting off the straight and narrow.
If I could ask you to take away one thing from all of this, it would be recognizing the importance of clarity. Give good instructions, please! Tell others why the performance is important. Set clear expectations, measure as objectively as possible to see whether or not those expectations are being met, and give high quality feedback to the performers so they know where they stand. Ask good questions so you can serve as a beacon of guiding light for others to "get clear," too. 

I don't expect you to do this alone, either. Leverage those within your organization for more coaching, and hire talented professionals to provide additional support. Speaking as one myself, there are also a number of well-equipped consultants and consulting firms out there who are ready and willing to partner with you. Let colleges and universities know you're looking for help -- we have many accomplished practitioners who spent many years in industry before coming to academia, and we're often half the price. 

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Coming right up on the subject of Clarity are some additional free resources from Karen Martin (through Becky Robinson at Weaving Influence). Check 'em out:
Clarity Quiz at
Clarity First webinar October 16 at 10 AM ET
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Great article, Jon. Clarity is so important. It is the least expensive tool, has the greatest impact, and yet is the least used. I'll join you in your quest to change that.
I highly recommend the new book from Karen Martin, "Clarity First." I'm only two chapters in, but I know it's already going to enhance my approach to helping others with their performance improvement efforts.
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