Assessing Employee Performance Concerns: Skill or Motivation

Managers have the daunting pressure of being responsible for a multitude of duties. Training and developmentinnovationmorale, metrics/reporting, and employee performance, to name a few. Let’s take a minute to give managers a hand, can we? It’s tough work and many times, thankless. I can personally attest to the fact that there is nothing more gut wrenching than having an employee that isn’t meeting expectations. You see one thing, then another, and then something’s mentioned in confidence to you that aligns with what you’re seeing. Diagnosis: performance problem.

During my years in HR I had managers seeking guidance regarding performance concerns on a pretty regular basis. My response was to listen, ask defining questions to fully understand the situation, then ask what their plan is to get the employee back on track.  I was often met with a shrugging of shoulders and an, “I don’t know, that’s why I’m here” response. Fair. I found that most performance concerns typically fell into one of two buckets: skill or motivation. Either the employee doesn’t have the skill to perform the role, or they know how, but aren’t motivated to do so. Sometimes you have a combination, but typically it’s one or the other. Determining whether it’s skill or motivation is fairly straight forward, but here are a couple of examples that outline both.

Scenario A: The employee meets regularly with his or her manager and they agree to specific deliverables that can be completed within a certain timeframe. Manager offers support and an open door if the employee has questions, needs guidance or a simple check-in. The week passes, they meet again and the deliverables aren’t complete or heading in the direction that was agreed to. The employee doesn’t provide an explanation for not meeting deliverables and he or she didn’t seek any support during the week. They breakdown the project to ensure the employee is confident of next steps. The manager asks if the employee feels ok with the project, or, if there is anything wrong, “nope, all is well and I’ll get right on it” is the response from the employee. The manager notices that the employee is late by 5-10 minutes on a regular basis, spends a lot of their time socializing on their phone, and seems disengaged in meetings.

What’s the diagnosis for the above scenario, skill or motivation? Correct, motivation! The manager has provided the employee support, resources, reviewed the project together, mutually agreed to a deadline – and nothing. Motivation is a tough one to remedy. If the employee doesn’t want to do the work vs. doesn’t know how to do the work – there’s an issue. The manager can document the situation, outline some examples, meet with the employee, and objectively share concerns. They can provide mentorship or a peer to work with them. But, it’s really up to the employee to decide in this situation.

Scenario B: Director has an employee that has recently been promoted to a managerial position. The new manager expresses enthusiasm for the promotion but shares that management is new; a role they’ve never done before. The manager oversees a team of entry level employees, meets weekly with each one, has departmental meetings, and provides support to the team. Time goes by, the director gets reports of micromanaging, low morale, and general unhappiness on the team. The director and manager meet and a pizza party/outing is suggested to help with morale and getting to know each other better. Issues persist and a few employees resign over the course of many months and provide feedback regarding their manager through exit interviews. The director supports the manager by saying these things happen and it will get better. It doesn’t. The manager gets a performance review stating that morale and employee satisfaction needs to improve. Despite the managers sincere attempts at improving, problems persist and the newly promoted manager is overall unsuccessful.

By process of elimination, you’ve probably guessed that scenario B is skill. What did that new manager need? Training, skill-set assessment, and probably a mentor. What did he or she receive? Suggestion for a get-to-know-you session and a pat on the back that things will improve. This person clearly has motivation to get better as a manager, but no idea how to get there – aka, skill.

Solving employee performance concerns is a much larger topic for another article but beginning with the diagnosis helps you determine your approach.  You can teach just about any skill if the employee is motivated to learn and improve. Motivation is more difficult and many times requires more open ended questions to the employee and extended conversation. If you can solve the root of the motivation issue – win win!




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