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Diagnosing Performance Problems

One of the toughest tasks for any manager or supervisor is to determine the cause of a performance problem. Since decisions to remediate the problem will depend on the diagnosis, accurate assessment is crucial. In this article we will outline a model of factors influencing employee performance, so that you are less likely to ignore a possible source of performance deficit. In future issues of the Public Sector Manager, we will return to this topic in more detail.

The Nature of Performance

Work performance is influenced by a number of factors. When performance is excellent, it is a result of a number of circumstances that work together to make this excellence possible. So, stellar performance requires that ALL relevant influences on behaviour are in place.

Sadly, poor performance can result from a SINGLE factor or influence that drastically reduces effectiveness. Frequently, a performance problem that is allowed to continue unchecked will expand as other influences turn from positive to negative.

A Seven Factor Model

We can suggest seven factors that influence or determine the level of performance. These factors are multiplicative in nature. For those of you whose favorite subject in schools was NOT math, this means that performance will be as strong as the weakest link in the chain of performance determinants. If there is a deficit in any one of these factors, performance will suffer.

Factor 1: Aptitude

Aptitude refers to a person's native ability to perform the task or tasks. Each of us has strengths and weaknesses that determine if we can learn or perform a task. Poor aptitude for a task could mean that the person could never learn how to do it, even with all the supports in the world. Assessing aptitude is very difficult.

Factor 2: Skill Level

Even the simplest responsibilities require skills. Skills differ from aptitudes in that they can be learned, up to the limits imposed by aptitude. To assess whether a performance deficit is a result of lack of skill, ask the questions, "If his/her life depended on it, could the person do the task?" If the answer is no, then it could be a skill problem.

Factor 3: Understanding of Task

A person must understand the nature of the task, and what is expected. If this clear communication is lacking, no amount of skill or motivation will bring about effective performance. Performance management is the common means for conveying understanding of the task. The best way to assess an employee's understanding is to ask questions within a coaching environment.

Factor 4: Choice to Expend Effort

This, and the next factor are motivational factors. If a person has the aptitude, skills and understanding of the task required, it may be that there are factors causing the person to "not make the effort". These may be personal or related to the work environment. Assessing whether there is a motivational problem is difficult, and can best be done by examining other indicator behaviours (absenteeism, lack of participation in meetings, or other factors that suggest a motivational problem.

Factor 5: Choice of Degree of EffortTo Expend

Sometimes effort is not an on/off thing. An employee may be putting in a limited amount of effort and therefore producing inferior results.

Factor 6: Choice To Persist

Performance requires that effort be initiated and sustained over time. This motivational factor may result in projects started but never completed. If an employee is not persisting in tasks, it can indicate boredom, fear of failure, or may relate to a lack of skills. Careful, diplomatic discussion is
required to uncover if and why this may be occurring.

Factor 7: Outside Factors

Performance can be reduced due to factors beyond the control of the individual. The organization itself may be setting barriers to performance, or uncooperative co-workers and managers may contribute. Discussion with the employee during performance management should include reference to factors outside the control of the employee that impede progress. If these outside factors are allowed to continue, unacknowledged, motivational levels will drop, complicating the issue and creating a chronic under-performer.


It is important that performance problems be addressed as soon as they occur, and the above factors be examined to determine whether they are contributing to the problem. By working with the employee in a cooperative way, it is possible to identify and remediate some of the underlying causes of work performance problems.

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