The One Question to Ask About Performance Problems

Posted by Bob Corlett on January 6, 2011

Imagine you are working under a tight deadline.  You have a thousand other things to do and are relying on your employee Frank  to give you a key piece of information.  Your deadline passes and Frank has not given you what you asked for  ...  and this is not the first time he's disappointed you.

If I only allowed you to ask one question to get at the root cause of Frank's performance problem, what would your question be?

Where you look to find solutions to performance problems reveals quite a bit about you.  Once I know where you reflexively look, I can predict both your business results and your employee turnover with almost clairvoyant accuracy.

While assumptions can simplify decision making, many assumptions about employee performance are really quite toxic to your workplace.   As Albert Einstein once said: "Things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler."   And I find that far too many common managerial assumptions are dead wrong.

For example: some managers reflexively assume that performance problems are caused by an employee character flaw.   They reflexively think that the offending person's work ethic must be the root cause of the problem.   You can hear their assumptions yelled across the room.  "That lazy SOB Frank is trying to sabotage me.  He KNEW I needed the sales figures by Friday.  He sent them late on purpose!"  Their questions revolve around Frank's motivations.  "Why is he so lazy? Is he trying to make me look bad?"

More highly evolved managers "never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by misunderstanding."  So their assumptions and questions are different.  They assume he was doing the best he could under the circumstances, so he must have lacked the training or ability to do his job.  They ask "Did he not understand what I expected?  Was he not smart enough or not trained how to do his job?  Is he even in the right job in the first place?"

But these kindhearted souls also miss the mark.   Because they are still looking at Frank for the solution to the problem.

The most effective managers look beyond Frank and instead look at the work environment.   In Switch, Chip and Dan Heath observed that "What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem ... we have a systematic tendency to ignore the situations and forces that shape other people's behavior ... the error lies in our inclination to attribute people's behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in."

Two years ago I wrote a post called "Why Won't Your People Step Up" centered on my favorite quote from W. Edwards Deming:  "A bad system will beat a good person every time.”

So when you have a performance problem, you need to ask the right question, the question that puts you at the very center of solving the problem once and for all:

"How have I created the environment to allow this failure to repeatedly occur?" 

Employee Performance Diagnostic

Topics: Human Resources, Performance Management, Hiring Managers