Solving People Problems
For an organization to enjoy universal high performance, it
must recognize the good performance delivered by the great
majority of organization members. The more that the manager
provides positive consequences (Positive Contacts) for good
performance, the more likely it is that good performance will
In spite of any action that managers take, however, people
problems will still arise. When they do, managers need to
confront the problems and make sure that the individual's
performance returns to a fully acceptable level.
Some performance problems can easily be defined in a specific
and measurable way. In the area of attendance, for example,
the employee's variation from organizational expectations is
clear and visible. The company expects the employee to be at
work every day on time; in the last three weeks Henry has
arrived at work more than twenty minutes late on three
separate occasions. In this case both the desired and the
actual performance are clear.
In other cases the gap between desired and actual is more
difficult to define. When the concern is related to the
quality of an individual's work, or to her relations with
customers and coworkers, or to his general demeanor and
attitude, it is more difficult to develop a straightforward
description of the variance between what is expected and what
is delivered. But whatever the issue may be, problems can not
be solved until they can be identified specifically.
Types of Problems
To begin, it is useful to recognize that all problems of human
performance in an organization fall neatly into one of three
categories: attendance, performance, and conduct:
1. Attendance. Attendance problems arise when an individual
fails to meet the company's expectation that she will be at
work on time every day. When a large health-care
organization recently implemented Discipline Without
Punishment, they articulated their attendance expectations
in a way that could not be misunderstood. Their policy
states: "Our attendance expectations are simple and clear.
We expect every employee to be at work, on time, for the
full duration of the scheduled work shift, every day that
the employee is scheduled to work."
2. Performance. These issues involve problems with the quality
and quantity of the individual's work. Issues in the
performance category include such things as failure to meet
deadlines, failure to attain goals, excessive scrap and
waste, provoking customer complaints, or wasting time.
3. Behavior/Conduct. The behavior or conduct category involves
those issues that deal with violating the organization's
rules or standards. Examples would include smoking in a
restricted area, inappropriate use of company vehicles,
failure to comply with expense reimbursement procedures,
safety violations, unauthorized acceptance of gifts, and
theft of company property.
Sorting a problem into its appropriate category is helpful for
two reasons. First, these three categories describe the
universe of possible problems the manager may encounter. Any
problem that arises in an organization will be either an issue
of attendance, of performance, or of conduct. It is helpful,
therefore, to start the problem-solving process by narrowing
down the specific category into which the specific concern
Second, it is helpful to note that the three categories of
performance problems are mutually exclusive. In other words,
not only do all performance problems that the manager will
ever encounter fall very neatly into one of the three
categories, but there is no overlap between the three. The
employee who has a problem arriving for work on time every day
(a problem in the attendance category) may do an excellent job
while he's there and never violate any of the organization's
rules. Another individual may smoke in a restricted area (a
conduct issue) but perform at a highly competent level and
maintain an excellent attendance record. Or there is the
person whose quality of work is unacceptable (a performance
concern) but who maintains an acceptable attendance record and
follows all the company's rules and standards.
Wait a minute-managers frequently respond once they've
encountered the idea that all problems fall in an orderly way
into the three uncluttered categories of attendance,
performance, and conduct-what about somebody with an attitude
problem? Which category is that? Or is that a separate
category all its own?
No, it's not. Attitude is a behavioral issue, so consider it
to be in the behavior/conduct category. But attitude problems
are a bit of a sticky wicket. We deal with attitude problems
in detail when we get to Chapter 9.
Segregating problems into one of the three categories will be
particularly useful later on when we explore how to administer
a discipline system. One of the most difficult issues managers
confront is figuring out when a disciplinary step should be
repeated and when it's appropriate to move to the next more
formal level. How many Reminder 1s can an employee get? When
should that individual move to the Reminder 2 stage? If the
organization tags problems as attendance, performance, or
conduct issues, it becomes much simpler to provide workable
guidelines on the number of disciplinary transactions an
individual may receive.
Making Problem Definitions Specific
Problems in the attendance and behavior/conduct categories are
fairly easy to describe in terms of the specific difference
between desired and actual performance. You want all employees
to be at work, ready to go, at 8:00 a.m. In the last four
weeks there were three occasions when George didn't arrive
until 8:15 a.m. You want all machine operators to wear safety
goggles any time they're using a lathe; Harriet was running
the lathe without safety goggles on. The gap between desired
and actual performance is clear in both cases.
That's not always true when the issue is one of
performance-quality and quantity of work. Some of these cases
are fairly straightforward: Managers are expected to get all
performance appraisals written and submitted to their bosses
for review by April 27; it's now May 4 and three managers have
yet to complete their appraisals. The difference between what
you want and what you get is obvious.
But other performance issues aren't as clear. Our tendency is
to generalize about problems. While our generalizations may be
accurate, they're not helpful in getting employees to
understand the exact gap between desired performance and their
In a seminar at a large hospital in the Southwest, the
director of the dietary department began the problem
identification process by describing an individual who wasn't
a team player. "What makes you say that?" I asked her.
"He doesn't show any team spirit," she responded.
The whole seminar group and I then analyzed what had just
happened. To support one generalization-"He's not a team
player"-she had simply offered up another-"He doesn't show any
"Let me try a different approach," I responded, once she and
the others saw how common it is to try to support one judgment
or generalization by offering up another. "If you had to prove
in court that this person truly wasn't a team player, what
could you offer as evidence?"
I divided the group in half. I asked the dietary director and
her teammates to come up with a list of the actual things that
an individual might do that would be acceptable evidence that
the person really did have a problem with working effectively
as a team member. The other half of the group I set to work
generating a list of actions that they would accept as
specific evidence that an individual was indeed a team player.
Actual Performance (evidence that someone was not a team
Works on obviously low-priority job tasks when she could
be assisting others with much more important parts of the
Wanders in other areas with no valid reason.
Does only those tasks that are specifically assigned.
Says, "That's not my job," when asked to take charge of an
Makes negative comments about the quality of others'
suggestions (for example, "That's a dopey idea ...").
Makes negative personal comments about other people (for
example, "What doofus here is trying to say is ..." when
a fellow worker got tongue-tied during a team meeting).
Makes no effort to get along with others, as shown by
sitting alone in the cafeteria at lunch and not
participating in group social activities.
Says, "I don't need anyone's help," when the manager asks
a fellow employee to work with her on a minor project.
Desired Performance (evidence that someone is a team
Demonstrates a spirit of cooperation as shown by not
monopolizing time during a team meeting.
Offers up solutions to team problems and not just
complaints about their existence.
Supports coworkers' ideas and suggestions by saying things
like, "That's a good idea, Mary."
Offers to assist others in their duties when time is
Supports coworkers by making positive statements about
them and asking if they need help.
Asks coworkers for assistance in her projects to
demonstrate that others are also members of the team.
Assists others when they ask for help, or politely
explains why she can't at that time.
The best way to overcome the temptation to generalize or be
judgmental about problems is to ask the question, "What do I
know for sure?"
Determining the Cause
Once we have clearly identified the specific gap between
desired and actual performance, the next step is to determine
why the employee isn't doing the job properly right now.
When a person isn't performing the way we expect, there are
only two causes. The performance deficiency involves either a
lack of knowledge or a lack of execution. Either he doesn't
know how to do the job right, or he does know how to do it
right but something is getting in the way. The easiest way to
determine the actual cause is to ask the question, "Could he
do the job properly if his life depended on it?"
If the answer is "No"-no matter how hard he tried or how
motivated he might be, he couldn't do the job right-then we're
probably looking at a problem caused by a deficiency in
knowledge. The individual doesn't have the knowledge or skills
required to do the job right, and some kind of training is
But if the answer is "Yes"-he could do the job properly if he
had to, but he still isn't performing properly-then we're
dealing with a deficiency in execution. In this case, the
employee has the knowledge and skills required to do the job
properly, but isn't executing.
It's important to distinguish between knowledge and execution
problems because the solutions will be very different.
Training is the obvious solution to a knowledge problem, but
training won't help when the cause of the problem is a lack of
When discussing performance deficiencies on their
subordinate's part, managers often make the mistake of
describing them as "training problems." If we define
performance problems as training problems, we are confusing
the cause of the problem with its solution. We are committing
the same error as the individual who goes to the doctor with a
headache and explains, "Doc, I've got an aspirin problem." He
doesn't have an aspirin problem ... he's got a headache.
Aspirin may be a solution. Antibiotics may be a solution.
Brain surgery may be a solution. But his problem isn't
aspirin-the problem is, his head hurts. The manager doesn't
have a training problem, he has a performance deficiency.
Training may occasionally be the solution to performance
problems. But based on my experience of working with thousands
of managers, it rarely is. Hundreds of times I have asked
managers to make lists of the specific performance problems
they face. They write down the things their subordinates are
doing that need to be changed. We refine them into detailed
and measurable statements of desired behavior and actual
Once they have written their statements in terms that are
specific and unarguable, I ask them to determine whether each
of the problems that they have identified are knowledge issues
or execution issues. Is this one caused by a lack of knowledge
and skill, or is this situation one where the individual could
be performing properly if he had to, but isn't?
The results are always the same. Out of two dozen problems the
group has listed, perhaps one or two will be caused by a
deficiency in knowledge. Another two or three may represent a
combination of the two. But by far the great majority are
issues where the deficiency is one of execution. The
individual could be doing the job right if he had to. He does
know how, they tell me, but he isn't executing.
Recognize the limitations of training. To be blunt, the only
thing that training can predictably do is provide knowledge
and skills where they don't already exist. As valuable as this
may be, most of the time it takes something other than
training to solve the performance problems managers face.
Solving Execution Problems
Deficiencies in knowledge are cured by training. What do you
do when the person knows how to perform properly, but still
isn't doing the job right?
These are the cases where managers are particularly inclined
to blame the employee's bad attitude or complain that he just
doesn't care. While in some cases it may turn out that the
individual truly does not care, usually the problem results
from something interfering with proper performance. The need
here is not for training; it is for job engineering. Three
solutions are available to put things right: Remove obstacles,
provide feedback, and arrange appropriate consequences.
We can only expect people to perform their jobs well if they
have all the resources required to do the job properly. If a
person does not have the equipment needed to do a job or
receives conflicting instructions, or if a bad environment or
poor working conditions interfere with job performance, the
employee will be unable to do the job right.
Job interferences are frequently difficult to identify since
we may be so used to going around them that we don't even
notice that they exist. It is often useful simply to ask if
there's anything that gets in people's way as they try to
In today's business environment, no organization is able to
provide all of the resources that would enable every employee
to do his job without interferences. Limited resources are,
and will continue to be, a fact of life. Too often, however,
the obstacles that interfere with job performance are ones
that could be easily eliminated if the manager actively seeks
to help her employees perform well.
A recent survey reported that fully 80 percent of American men
believe that they are in the top 10 percent of athletic
ability for their age group. In the absence of accurate
feedback, people tend to believe that they are better than
they truly are.
Regular, accurate, and timely information is one of the most
important tools for any individual to use in maintaining
acceptable job performance.
The classic application of using performance feedback to
improve job performance involved Emery Air Freight's success
in increasing the use of containers to consolidate several
small packages into one large container. The company's stated
goal was 95 percent utilization of containers and, while it
was not precisely measured, the assumption on the part of most
managers and employees was that the 95 percent goal was being
One day an Emery senior manager actually audited the operation
to see what percentage of shipments that could be
containerized actually were containerized. He was astounded at
the result. Instead of 95 percent, it was 45 percent.
Excerpted from "Discipline Without Punishment: The Proven Strategy That Turns Problem Employees into Superior Performers" by Dick Grote. Copyright © 2006 by Dick Grote. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.