Why 'Minding the Gap' Holds Back Individual Performance

Guest Contributorby Dr. Christopher Lee | Posted | Performance Management

Why \'Minding the Gap\' Holds Back Individual Performance

In Management 101 classes, future supervisors are taught to establish performance standards and expectations and to measure employee performance against those standards. When employees fall short, managers diagnose their performance weaknesses and then provide training on the gap between performance targets and actual performance outcomes.

Classically educated trainers are taught how to use needs assessments to identify training shortfalls and fill in the gap with targeted development programs. The only problem with identifying weaknesses and shoring them up with training is that this is old HR technology.

Management guru Gary Hamel is famous for noting that management itself is a technology. It is an advanced way of working that has evolved and improved over the ages. Modern HR professionals have learned a great deal more about performance and have new tools and new technologies for improving performance. First, if we agree with W. Edwards Deming, individual performance is a byproduct of a number of factors, not just individual effort. Deming argues the following:

The performance of anybody is the result of a combination of many forces-the person himself, the people that he works with, the job, the material that he works on, his equipment, his customers, his management, his supervision, environmental conditions (e.g. noise, confusion, and poor food in the company cafeteria, etc.).

Looking at the ‘individual' in individual performance

This sophisticated understanding of performance supports my argument that the performance of individuals is not one dimensional. Second, we have already known that an individual's performance can at least be viewed as a factor of both their willingness and their ability to perform using the Situational Leadership Framework.

Next however, we must acknowledge that performance is also a factor of an individual's core capacity, their talent, or the natural disposition to particular activities. We all know this intuitively at home and at play, but somehow we do not fully accept this idea at work. Accepting this view will demand that we let go of outdated training methods.

We will no longer identify training needs by identifying one's weaknesses or mistakes. We would have to recognize that teaching math to people that are naturally gifted at numbers (quantitative analysis) will be easier than teaching those who are more oriented toward words (qualitative expression). This will demand that we stop telling talented salespeople that they must get their reports in on time and dot every ‘I" and cross every "T" on their expense reports. Training them more and chastising them for working against their core strength of relationship building is almost futile.

Marcus Buckingham popularized the idea of building upon a person's natural gifts in his 2001 book, Now Discover Your Strengths. The premise has been borne out in countless research articles validating the fact that the greatest potential for performance increases comes from building upon one's strengths instead of trying to fix one's weaknesses. Let writers write, salespeople sell, extraverts interact, and artists create.

We should stop creating jobs that require every accountant to do their own quarterly reports. Some want to do analysis, some just bookkeeping, and others actually like compiling the results and penning the reports. So, we should then stop trying to train those who do not like writing reports to become better writers.

Using technology to address individual performance needs

It is far easier to just require everyone to attend training than it is to individualize learning experiences. It is complicated to diagnose every person's strengths and map them against the work to be done and craft work experiences that capitalize on the unique abilities of everyone on the team. It seems to be an uneven and insurmountable task.

First of all, it is 2014 and technology can help you develop, track, and administer such processes and programs. Second, this is where you will find the greatest gains in performance, the goal of all training and development programs. A point of reference might be athletes getting individualized coaching that allows them to perform at their optimal level. Third, this is where learning technology is headed in the future. The technology already exists. The question is, "Are we using it in HR to cultivate better performance for all of our team members?"

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