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All too often, when dealing with an employee whose performance or behavior does not

meet expectations, we attribute the problems to some flaw in the person's character -- labeling
the individual a 'problem' employee. Such attribution and labeling usually are unfair and
unwarranted ... and always are counterproductive. Although there are exceptions...

The true cause of most performance problems has nothing to do with an employee's character.

Once you grasp this Secret, you open yourself to diagnosing...

The 5 Root Causes of Performance Problems

The real cause of most problems falls into one or more of the following 5 categories:

1. Expectations: Does the employee know what is expected? Does the employee even
know there is a problem? These both may be obvious to you, but often they are not to the
employee. [This is a classic symptom of not receiving constructive feedback.]
2. Training and Ability: Does the employee have the requisite skills, abilities and aptitudes
to perform the task? If they don't have the aptitudes, you'll probably have to reassign or
fire them. But if it's a skills/abilities issue, you then need to ask yourself... Has the
employee received the appropriate training to do it? This may include formal classroom
training or education. Even more likely, however, is the need for OJT -- showing the
employee how to do it.
3. Job Design: Does the employee have the necessary tools and resources to perform the
task? Those resources include not only physical tools, but also convenient and timely
access to information and to you, their manager. And does the system support good
performance? This gets into such issues as communications, scheduling and teamwork --
within a department and between departments.
4. Work Environment This refers not only to the physical environment, but also to how
employees are treated. Is good performance rewarded ... or punished? For example, is
there an informal standard set by peer pressure to not work too efficiently? Or, are you
assigning extra, more demanding tasks to your best employees, without rewarding them
appropriately? Is poor performance rewarded? That is, do you tolerate it? Do you treat
your marginal employees the same as you treat your outstanding ones? --> Hey, why not
goof off? And is the employee being treated fairly? Not only in your eyes, but also in
theirs. This includes:

• Discrimination and harassment • Equity theory

• Sensitivity to differences • Favoritism
 Personal/Motivational Problem

Does a problem exist in the employee's personal life that may contribute to poor performance?
For example, the reason for lateness and attendance problems often is parental responsibilities.

Or is the employee's morale or attitude preventing the employee from successfully applying his
or her skills and abilities? This may or may not be subject to your control or influence, but it's
certainly worth looking into. Low morale or even a negative attitude may be a symptom of
excessive job demands or not receiving deserved positive feedback.


Prior to taking action on a performance problem (e.g., coaching or giving constructive feedback),
you need to think about those five categories of potential root causes, asking yourself all those
questions. You probably won't be able to answer all of them, without consulting someone else.
So ask your in-house expert -- the employee him/herself!

You may find that it is not a performance intervention that's called for, but a change in the
system or in your own behavior.

[NOTE: Although critical for addressing performance problems, such diagnosis also can be
useful when assisting good employees to develop into great employees.]


1. Identify one of your employees who needs performance improvement.

2. Describe that person's performance problems (i.e., the symptoms, not the causes).
3. Ask yourself each of the questions in the five categories as it pertains to the problems.
Answer as best as you can.
4. Determine for which questions you need additional information, e.g., from the employee
and/or from others.
5. Ask them.