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Troubleshooting Job Performance

Tips and tricks on how DATA can help diagnose job performance issues.

A New Model for Understanding Performance

Managers are like coaches in baseball, football, or other sports. They are always seeking to get a higher level of performance from their employees. Sometimes they must deal with the occasional “slumps” that can happen to anyone. At other times, managers are faced with the riddle of a specific performance issue with an otherwise solid employee. The most challenging of all are the employees who work hard with a great attitude and still fail to achieve the necessary results in their jobs. For years, sports coaches have enjoyed the benefit of a trove of data to help them diagnose and correct the performance of their players. Now similar DATA is available for managers and supervisors in any type of industry.

The purpose of this post is to first acquaint managers and supervisors with a new model for understanding the foundations of job performance. It has transformed the way leading businesses are hiring, training, and coaching their workers. It has even transformed the way jobs are being designed. The changes within the world of talent management are enormous, but the concepts are quite simple and easy to apply in any business. The second part of this post will suggest a way of diagnosing performance issues using DATA. With this method, managers can discover the causes of performance shortfalls and determine what type of intervention might be effective.​

Effective troubleshooting of job performance issues begins with identifying the potential causes of the problem. Traditionally, job performance was understood through a two-part paradigm: Attitude, Values & Motivation plus Skills, Education & Experience. (Figure A)

Figure A

If performance was not what was expected, solutions came from this model. If the person was motivated and had a good attitude, they probably needed more training or experience. They were on a learning curve. If the person had the skills and experience to do the job but was not achieving what they should, it must be a matter of motivation. These conclusions led to expensive training programs and imaginative incentive plans. Sometimes these worked, and performance improved. However, more often than not these initiatives seemed to have a more positive impact on the good performers than on the ones who were the real focus of the effort. The good performers got better; the average performers got a little better, but the struggling performers still struggled.

Results such as this inspired other explanations, whose most significant contribution was to fill desperate managers' bookshelves with fascinating theories that offered little in the way of actionable advice. Everyone agreed that the wrong people shouldn’t be on the bus, and the right people should be on the bus. Labeling the various generations and painting the whole gang with common characteristics was interesting and made for fun discussions. It just failed to answer the questions of what specifically to do.​

The difficulty was not with the training or with the incentives. The theories and concepts that were put forth were not the product of charlatans. The problem was that the model of what caused job performance was incomplete. Well into the 1990s, it had been irrevocably shown that people had hard-wired personality traits and cognitive abilities that were essentially foundational to all job behaviors. (Figure B)

These were just as real and pragmatic as height in basketball. Tall people generally play that game better than shorter people. There are occasional exceptions, but they require exceptional speed, agility, a higher pain threshold, and much more energy to compete at even an average level. It turned out that jobs worked the same way. When individuals lacked the critical strengths or abilities that were essential to the performance of a particular job, it was difficult, if not impossible to achieve a successful level of performance. Even with herculean efforts and determination, the best that could be expected was a merely adequate level of performance, and that came at a cost of energy and stress.

DATA identifies each individual’s strengths and abilities. The business world is coming face to face with the reality that athletics figured out long ago…no one can do all things well, but everyone can do some things well. In track and field, the sprinters are not expected to excel in the long distances. The pitcher in baseball is not expected to hit like the outfielders. Occasionally there is a rare athlete who can perform across a wider range of events or positions, but those few are never as good as the specialists. In business, the general feeling was that with hard work and motivation, any employee could do almost any job. Of course, common sense and observation told a very different story. Even then, the problems were explained as The Peter Principle or Generation X or Y or ? or whatever theory was the latest idea.

In 1995, Right Person - Right Job, Guess or Know introduced this new 3-part model for understanding job performance, based on research using a marvelous psychometric instrument designed specifically to correlate job performance with hard-wired personality traits and cognitive abilities. While the data was accurate and reliable, it was not easily understood without special training. Over the next ten years, extensive research and development, combined with extensive market studies, produced the BestWork DATA system, which combined state-of-the-art psychometrics with reports that could be understood by anyone. A unique collaboration with human resource professionals and recruiters evolved an output format that related DATA to the specific job behaviors of any position. For the first time, DATA was linked directly with the outcomes managers were seeking. ​

The power of the DATA to solve performance problems and manage talent depends upon recognizing the relationship between the individual’s strengths and the elements within the other two circles: Attitude, Value & Motivation and Skills, Education & Experience. All three are necessary for sound performance. Other key factors affecting the performance of any employee are management, the work environment, and the employee’s personal life. The DATA can serve as a guide for finding the cause of a performance issue. The following section of this paper will outline a practical path for doing this. (Figure C)

A Path for Solving Performance Problems with DATA

​Solving performance problems is often more of an art than a science, however, there is a proven path of inquiry that will help guide a supervisor or manager in a logical sequence of priorities. Figure C illustrates that path. The numbers correspond to explanations of each step in the process.

Before you start…Is this important? This is a simple question that often goes unasked until, after much time, energy and emotions have been spent on a minor issue. Sometimes the quest for perfect performance can get in the way of more meaningful successes. This could be the rainmaker salesperson who never gets the paperwork quite right. It could be the outstanding employee who does not always follow the company dress code. The first step with a performance problem is to confirm that its importance justifies the cost in time, energy, emotions, and money that it may take to resolve it. If that is not the case, ignore it and focus on more productive goals.

  1. Can They Do It? This is the key question that DATA introduces. Before I attempt to motivate an employee and before I train them, would it make sense to determine if they do the job in question? DATA can answer that question. W. Edwards Deming, in his extensive studies of workers and quality production methods, found that if an employee was not performing well in a particular job, it was not because they were lazy or didn’t care. It was because they were poorly suited to that job or were not being managed effectively.

  • Similar studies have found that the primary reason salespeople did not deliver the expected sales was simply that they lacked the necessary traits or abilities to do so.

  • IT developers lacking the traits and abilities that drive consistency tended to make exceptions to convention when writing their code.

  • Almost one-third of call center agents cannot take inbound calls for an extended period, because they have traits and abilities that are different from those required in such roles.

  • Creative marketing individuals working with complex conceptual products and services had dramatically different sets of traits and abilities from those working with more common products and services. Both were successful in their roles, but neither found the same success when placed in the other’s world.

BestWork’s Quick Screen Charts, Strengths Charts, and Job Reports provide clear information that shows whether or not a person has the traits and abilities to perform a particular job. This must always be confirmed before considering other options, such as training or motivation.

  1. Do they know how to do it? All jobs consist of tasks that require skills and knowledge that are not necessarily common to everyone. The knowledge might be quite simple, such as knowing where to find the right form or tool. It might seem obvious to people who have been doing that job for some time. However, even the simplest form or task is not simple to a new employee who is trying hard to do everything exactly right the first time. The terminology may be unfamiliar or unique to the company. Once it has been determined with DATA that the person CAN DO the job, the next question must be, “Have they been trained to do the job properly?”

  2. Do they want to do it? Attitude and motivation are key to job performance. If the employee CAN DO the job, and if they know HOW TO DO the job, are they motivated to do it? Do they have a positive attitude? Are they solving problems or pointing out problems? Are they talking about what can’t be done or what can be done? Are they seeking to learn more about their job and how to improve, or do they seem to know everything and bristle up defensively when coached?

  3. Do they have the tools to do the job? “Tools” can refer to actual tools, software, forms, time, a place to work, or anything that is necessary to do the job. With the rapid changes in technology, it is not uncommon to discover that changes in systems have resulted in obstacles to performing jobs that were simple only a short time ago. Computers can be outdated for the current tasks. Internet access can be limiting. Shared resources can be inadequate.

  4. Can it be done in that work environment? As businesses change, jobs are also changed. Sometimes, out of necessity, tasks are assigned to an employee whose work environment is not suited for the new tasks. For example, a receptionist was asked to handle some extremely detailed reports, while being constantly interrupted with answering phone calls and greeting visitors. A retail store manager was asked to work on a major marketing project, involving designs and blueprints, yet the retail store had no office for him to use.

  5. Are they being managed to do it? Has the manager set appropriate priorities for the tasks in question? Have clear timelines and deadlines been communicated so that everyone has the same sense of urgency? Have guidelines been established for the level of detail and quality that is expected? Has the manager allowed for any additional time that may be required in lieu of the regular job responsibilities?

  6. Is anyone else doing this job well? If others have done this same job, did they do it well? Did they perform the job at the same level as expected for this new person? Sometimes, a series of people may attempt the same job with each one having difficulty meeting the standards. This is a sign that the standards may be unrealistic.

  7. Has anything changed? The dynamics of business are constantly producing changes. Some are significant, but others are small. Even the small ones at some point can affect the ability to do a job efficiently. It is important to review job responsibilities on a regular basis to ensure that this does not happen.

  8. Is there something in their personal life that is interfering with their job? When all of the preceding questions have been answered and still there seems to be no reason for the job performance problem, the likelihood is that some event or circumstance in the employee’s personal life is responsible for the issue. It could be a concern about finances, health, relationships, family, or something else. Depending upon the circumstances, a private discussion with the employee can determine if this is the case. In some cases, it may be important to use experienced or professional counselors to explore this possibility.

Most employees are working hard to do their best. When their best is not satisfactory, it is generally because something is getting in the way. This decision tree can be helpful in discovering the path for the employee and the company to be successful.

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