From the archive: L&D isn’t always the answer


Managers need to uncover the real causes of poor performance, says Clinton Wingrove.

Experienced L&D practitioners have always known that identified weaknesses should not immediately lead to ‘let’s put them on a course’, even if that is now an e-learning package. However, that has not stopped many problems ending up at L&D’s door that should have been handled differently.

In this article, I will explore how easy it is for performance issues to end up on L&D’s doorstep; why this is damaging to both employees and the L&D profession, and how this situation can be avoided so that L&D can invest its time where it is most needed.

Over-simplification of the processes

The economic recession in 2008 focused everyone’s minds on the importance of individual performance.

Many organisations learned that performance management processes (most of which are still based primarily on 1950s business theory) could do nothing to save them. Yet, four years on, organisations are still struggling to ‘get more for less’ and, despite HR budgets continuing to be cut, ‘send them on a training course’ is commonly thought of as the solution.

After all, we all know that ‘development increases employee engagement’.

Years of over-simplification of traditional performance management processes have trivialised performance planning and appraisal to the point where they add little. This does not mean that employees, managers and HR do not want individual performance managed – quite the opposite! Most employee engagement surveys confirm that employees place very high value on being given clarity around expectations, receiving regular performance feedback and being advised on how they can improve. Most managers say that a significant need is to be able to manage better the performance and development of their staff. Most HR professionals state that a critical need is to acquire better quality (valid, reliable, differentiating, comprehensive and useful) data about people and their performance. 

So, how do we advise managers to approach the problem, faced with at least three challenges:

  • we will always have staff whose performance could be improved
  • performance management processes are likely to stay trivial for a good few more years
  • sending people on courses evidently does not always work?

The simplest model of performance states that there are three conditions that need to be met for excellent performance to be delivered – the individual has the opportunity, capability and inclination to perform (see pdf).

However, that too may be an over-simplification when trying to diagnose the cause of poor performance as the latter two factors are often thought to be solvable with training.

However, our own research has shown that, irrespective of the actual performance management process, all human work processes have seven components. Each of these components offers the manager the chance to learn why performance is not as desired and to initiate corrective action. Few of them lead to the need for conventional training.

The seven components

First, let us look at the individual components. They are not optional; they are always there. Even if the organisation does not design them, the managers and employees do so – often unconsciously but often to the detriment of the organisation!

The seven components are:

  • direction setting The accumulation of everything that informs each individual employee about overarching goals, priorities, plans and strategies
  • clarifying roles How the employee learns about what his job is and his role in driving up his own and others’ performance
  • planning and aligning performance How each employee’s performance is planned; what has to be achieved and if there is any new knowledge and/or skill that needs to be acquired
  • monitoring and measuring How the employee and/or organisation know the actual performance; how performance is measured
  • enabling and enhancing How performance is influenced
  • assessing and evaluating How performance is judged
  • recognising and rewarding How acknowledgement of, and compensation for, performance is delivered.

A deficiency in any one or more of the above components will typically lead to poor performance. Therefore, the above model presents a structure for a manager to use when attempting to diagnose the cause of poor performance and thus to enable the prescription of a solution.

Using the seven components to improve performance

So, how can the manager use this model to assist in his diagnosis of the cause of an observed poor performance? I will respond to this by suggesting questions that the manager may ask himself or the employee.

Before I do that, it is important to understand that a manager also needs to avoid two common traps:

  • if you ask an employee do you understand…? an answer of yes tells you nothing. He may only think that he understands. The manager must request that he explain to me what you understand about…
  • if you ask an employee do you understand…? and the answer is no, this is typically not a training need. It is often best responded to with a series of open and probing questions that enable the employee to work it out. 

Now, to the seven components. For each one, I explain what the manager needs to know and give some example questions that may elicit diagnostic information. He can then determine how to proceed, as most do not demand traditional training – more often only coaching and day-to-day performance management.

Direction setting

This is the cumulative set of messages that an employee experiences that inform him of what matters in the organisation. These messages are often not coherent, eg the company values include teamwork yet bonuses are paid individually; the CEO states that customer satisfaction is critical yet implements cheap and ineffective off-shore handling of service calls; the company claims to be a technology leader yet provides its staff with old equipment and unstable infrastructure; the values say that ’employees are our most valuable asset’ yet managers rarely speak with staff, and so on.

The manager needs to know whether each individual employee understands what the organisation (and their part in it) is trying to achieve and how – despite the noise and minor contradictions that arise. 

While many organisations undertake training in this area (eg on-boarding or induction), [pullquote]employees act in accordance with the summation of what they see and experience, not merely in response to what they are told[/pullquote]. Therefore, each manager has a duty to ensure that employees are clear about the true ‘direction’ on an ongoing basis.

Poor performance often results because the employee does not understand what is truly important and/or is receiving conflicting messages from different sources.

Clarifying roles

With the exception of highly-defined jobs, such as those undertaken by call-centre staff, manual labourers etc, most jobs evolve and adapt, often to fit the incumbent.

However, if optimum performance and value for money (return on payroll) are to be achieved by an organisation, each employee must understand what their job demands are and also how they are expected to interact with others to achieve synergy.

Poor performance often results because the employee does not really understand his role and how he should interact with others to optimise collective performance.

Planning and aligning performance

While the outputs delivered by each employee are critically important, results are not the sole measure of performance.

Holistic performance consists of:

what the employee is expected to produce – why the job exists. Such goals, objectives or KPIs now often change within a performance period so keeping on top of the current expectations is key. These should align with the goals to which he contributes

how he is expected to do that (processes to follow, tasks to complete and behaviours to deploy). In addition to producing the results (ie being effective and efficient), the behaviours also need to align with the organisation’s values and ethics. Recently we have seen striking examples in the banking industry of the damage that failure here can have growth that he should achieve to be able to produce to the desired standard in the future in this or some other role.

Poor performance often results because the employee does not know what excellent performance looks like, not because he cannot deliver it.

Monitoring and measuring

Goals, objectives, competency models and development plans all lay a foundation against which we can measure progress and ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’. But measurement is not the same as evaluation. The former is objective fact; the latter takes into account factors such circumstances and changes in demand. Measurement tells us precisely how we are doing compared to the plan and informs our decisions about what, if anything, to change.

Poor performance often results because the employee does not know what his current level of performance is or how his day-to-day activity and behaviours are perceived by others.

Enabling and enhancing

The critically important component of the performance process that most traditional performance management systems omit is how the manager enables and enhances employees’ performance. It is this historical omission that has triggered the recent excitement over engagement.

Much of the activity in this component is needed by the manager but he also needs a detailed understanding of the employee and his role to be effective.

Poor performance often results because the employee does not have the opportunity to perform (eg through lack of equipment, resources, access, authority etc) or because the triggers, reinforcers, benefits, consequences etc associated with performance inhibit, rather than enable or enhance, it.

Assessing and evaluating

Evaluation is the process of taking evidence of performance (objective measures), comparing them to the plan and, by considering the prevailing circumstances and demands, determining a value of the performance contribution. This, therefore, requires judgment. On a rolling basis, it also requires an understanding of how the employee views changing demands and circumstances.

For example, if a new and aggressive competitor opens up locally, should the salesperson view this as a need to work harder in that territory to protect sales, or to work harder in another territory to achieve a better return on effort, or…?

Recognising and rewarding

Most so-called performance-related incentive schemes are neither truly performance related nor incentives. They are often based on a single overarching rating that lacks validity and reliability, largely because (a) they are plucked out of the air without any robust construction from measurements of objective/observable elements of performance, (b) the scale is such that the ability to differentiate is limited and (c) the motivations for the managers to provide certain ratings is nearly always far greater than the strength of the evidence to back up any other ratings. 

Most are not incentives as they fail many of the tests of an incentive, such as the recipient’s ability to predict and control the outcome; timelines matching the recipient’s cash flow horizons; the differentiation in the amounts is often too narrow; only a small percentage of good performers are motivated by financial reward once they believe that they are being paid sufficiently, and so on.


All too often, managers assume that L&D is the appropriate step for correcting poor performance whether this is due to poor recruitment and/or other issues. 

However, there are many reasons why performance may not be at the desired level. Seven key issues can have a major impact. [pullquote]The challenge facing a manager is to diagnose the real reason for poor performance[/pullquote]. 

Evidence is increasing that employees want to perform well. Unfortunately, there are often reasons why they do not succeed. With a simple set of questions, and attention to the employee’s responses, managers can often address performance shortfalls without the cost of training and development, and there has never been a time when the need for that is higher.

Only then can we ensure that L&D can focus on investing time with those who genuinely need their support.

To view all images and graphics from this article, please open the pdf file.


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