Next time you don’t do what you are supposed to do, I’ll try to understand WHY

For every hundred men hacking away at the branches of a diseased tree, only one will stoop to inspect the roots.” – Chinese Proverb

Drinking my chocolate truffle black tea along with my morning HBR reading. Read an interesting piece on employee performance and immediately was reminded of an organization I worked with, where the management was constantly complaining about team results and abilities.

I heard managers and team leaders around complain much too often about their employees’ performance and their lack of ability to get their jobs done. I heard the same managers and leaders applying pressure and even engaging in conflicts with those employees. I too seldom heard the same managers ask honest questions about WHY the job was not done or trying to investigate the cause.

Yelling is not an option and I hope you know it by now. Getting frustrated with your team is not an option either. Getting to the root of the problem and trying to figure out what’s causing the poor performance issue is the only option you actually have that allows you to be the manager you always hoped you would be. After some years of management experience, I can assure you that quick fixed never work for team motivation or employee performance.

We all know the Performance Equation that states that Performance = Ability x Motivation, but when dealing with poor performance issues we forget to ask ourselves what Ability actually means. Ability is not only about skills, soft skills, intelligence, knowledge, emotional intelligence and so on. It is also about resources, budgets, organizational flows, interdepartmental relationships and processes, market conditions etc. Ability does not equal employee aptitude. An easier way to think of it that I often apply and works to remind me this is my Transformed Performance Equation that says Performance = Aptitude x Resources x Motivation. By resources I also understand market and organizational flows.

I don’t have and I don’t believe there is a Universal WHY Assessment Recipe, but I do believe in simple tips that work in your pursuit of the WHY and that we often disregard:

  • ASK – as simple as that. Ask employees about their reasons. Listen to their points of frustration. Ask about resources they think they lack. Ask what support is needed;
  • Always ask open-ended questions in order to find out WHY your employee failed to do what he/she was supposed to do. Don’t assume. Don’t formulate conclusions when asking questions;
  • Prepare to have an open mind. When you’ve been doing things one way for a long while, you may be convinced that things need to be done that way only. Maybe the WHY is in the HOW. Maybe the method is the actual problem.

I’ll give you a simple example from my past. I was recently appointed manager of a 30 publishing people team and my upper management warned me that they have huge problems with this team as they are constantly writing 3 or 4 articles per person per day instead of the 5 articles per day minimum they were hired for. I came to the team with this in mind. I was expecting to meet really lazy and unmotivated people. But it was quite the opposite. Web journalists, skilled, each passionate about their subject and with a lot of enthusiasm to get the job done. Not the picture my upper management had painted for me. I started interviewing the team members and tried to get to the core of the problem. It wasn’t long until the pain point was revealed. The administration system was really outdated and made the writers’ job really tough. In order to publish an article you were supposed to work 3 hours. The math left me with 3 articles per day. The 4 articles per day many in the team achieved was true performance. They did complain about the administration interface but their former manager thought they were just lazy and refused to look into the problem. Easy as pie and also such a problem hadn’t been solved in years.

I finished my tea and morning insight and now I would really like to ask you: have you ever found a similar problem with your team? Was it ever not their fault for not getting their job done? I think your stories will definitely add value for managers who think their team is always to be blamed.

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