When performance standards are not met managers know that getting to the root cause of the issue is the key to creating sustainable improvement. In the book Influencer, Kerry Patterson et.al. describe a powerful approach for analyzing the sources that influence the ability to sustain results. These principles can readily be applied to performance and help the masterful manager develop strategies for improvement. Root cause can be considered in terms of motivation and ability and viewed from three different levels: personal, social, and organizational. Employees will not perform well tasks for which they lack either the motivation or the ability. However, to truly reach root cause it is necessary to consider not just the individual's motivation and ability but also the ways in which motivation and ability are impacted by the social and organizational environment. This results in a six cell model in which motivation and ability are viewed from the personal, social, and organizational view.

Personal motivation is an element of performance that is always considered in reviews. After all it is reasonable that people will perform their best when they are most motivated to do so. However, this can also become a simplistic trap in which the employee's attitude is the only factor considered. This is the Motivational Myth which states that if only there is enough desire to reach the outcome, success becomes inevitable. Clearly communicating the rationale behind and the importance of tasks is an essential role of the manager. This lays the groundwork for motivation. Creating the tie between the task and the impact to the business and customer places the task into a meaningful context. Finally, linking the employee's values to the task and the impact provides a solid basis for sustainable motivation.

Personal ability is the most clearly understood and most basic element of performance. No one can do well at a task for which they lack the fundamental skills and knowledge. Training, coaching, and mentoring are all typical responses that mangers us to address shortfalls in this area. There is one potential pitfall in identifying ability issues of which managers should be aware. This arises in the area of self reported ability issues. Sometimes employees are reluctant to admit that they do not know how to perform a task. It may be something they think they should know or that everyone else seems to know and they may fear that admitting to the lack of ability will result in a lost of confidence in them by others. In this case, the employee may cover the lack of ability by either showing an apparent lack of motivation to do the task or by arguing that the responsibility to perform the task belongs to someone else. Masterful managers are aware of this pitfall and keep it in consideration when listening to employee's description of the issue.

Social motivation looks at the impact that the immediate relationship environment has on performance. Typically those in the immediate relationship environment include the employee's boss and work team. The attitudes and messages from these individuals can have a powerful impact on motivation. To the extent that the words and actions of this group are aligned with the organizational and business needs they will help to sustain the motivation of the individual and performance of the task. When the messages from this group are out of alignment with the organizational and business needs, these messages serve to undermine performance. The influence of the social environment is quite powerful and over time it will overcome individual motivation. In analyzing root-cause, it is important to look for disconnects in the message being sent in this area. This includes the manager taking a close look at their own messages. Are thank you and pats on the back consistent with the message about the meaning and importance of tasks?

Social ability looks at the ways in which the performance of others impacts the ability of an employee to deliver results. Activity in the workplace is often complex and interactive. Producing a meaningful result may require the actions of several members of the work team. A given employee's ability to meet performance standards can be hampered when others who contribute to the end result deliver substandard work or fail to deliver needed responses in a timely manner.


Organizational motivation comes into play when considering the alignment of organizational goals and rewards with individual performance. A common disconnect in large organization is goals that are in conflict which occurs when one functional group is working to meet commitments that are either unrelated or even in conflict with the commitments of a different functional group. This is a particular pitfall for individuals working in cross functional teams. If a team member is working on a new product launch and is part of an organization whose primary role is to meet the daily production schedule there will be times when the demands placed on the individual are in conflict. Expecting the employee to be able to resolve these conflicts in real time is unrealistic. Performance will suffer in one area or the other and the masterful manager will recognize the impact this has on performance when looking for root cause. Reward and recognition programs can be another area of disconnect. Team performance will suffer in an environment where reward and recognition is exclusively focused on individual achievement.

Organizational ability encompasses the systems and processes that are part of the corporate infrastructure and include things such as IT systems and operating procedures. When the support supplied by the infrastructure is inadequate to support the task at hand, individual employee performance will suffer. This is a particular area of concern for managers because the impact of support that does not meet task needs will be felt across the manager's span of control. Actions to improve the level of infrastructure support are more likely to be initiated by the manager than the individual employee.

There are many factors to be considered in getting to the root cause of performance issues. Masterful managers are aware that is necessary to examine both motivation and ability when considering root cause and to look at these from the standpoint of the individual, the social environment, and the organizational contribution. A performance improvement plan that takes all of these factors into account is necessary if the manger is to deliver lasting and sustainable improvement.

About the Author

Maret Maxwell, PhD is the Chief Collaborator at Next Step-A Collaborative Services Group. His career spans academic, government, and private enterprise including 20 years as a manager and project manager with a Fortune 100 healthcare company. He currently works with clients to create sustainable improvements in business and leadership performance. Visit his website at &sec=article&uinfo=<%=server.URLEncode(1735)%>" target="_blank">http://nextsteppm.com