Unpacking performance problems

Photo of brown cardboard packing boxes, top flaps open, against a white wall.Unpacking performance problems can be a challenge for managers. And it’s important to do, because many – most? – all? – performance issues are combinations of multiple employee behaviors and multiple manager frustrations.

I had a conversation with a client this morning about a problem he wanted to address. In deconstructing what initially appeared straightforward (an accumulation of handwritten “to-do” notes on an employee’s desk), we discovered three things, all of which were relevant to helping the employee improve, and two of which weren’t evident until we started digging.

  1. The manager – my client – was concerned about the quantity of notes listing uncompleted tasks. Why were so many things outstanding? This was the obvious problem – the “presenting symptom,” so to speak.
  2. The manager (still my client!) needed to know about these open tasks in case an question came up when the employee wasn’t available to respond.
  3. The employee relies on visual cues (those handwritten notes) to remember tasks. Requiring them to use an electronic reminder tool accessible to both employee and manager would almost certainly result in dropped balls, thereby creating new issues.

Each of these points needs its own approach to handling what at first appeared to be a simple problem: lots of open tasks.

  1. Addressing the first point requires looking into what was taking up the employee’s time and exploring their prioritization process. Do they know how to prioritize according to what’s important for the business? Are they spending too much time on certain types of tasks, and if so, is there a skills or training issue at play? And so on.
  2. Addressing the second point requires improving communication between the employee and the manager. Does the employee understand why the manager needs to know what’s outstanding? How can communication happen in a way that works for both of them?
  3. All this needs to be done without removing the visual prompt of the handwritten notes, which the employee relies upon to get work done without forgetting anything. There’s a reason why these notes are right in front of them: they’re visual processors, as many people are. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being an “out of sight, out of mind” person; it’s how a lot of people’s brains work.

The initial problem statement was, “Why are all these handwritten notes all over the employee’s desk? That isn’t a good way to track tasks, and why are there so many?!” It looked like a simple problem – but without exploration, there’s no visibility into the underlying, bigger issues.

Unpacking problems is a learnable skill

Unpacking a situation like this isn’t a natural ability for most people. Fortunately, it’s not hard to learn.

The first question to ask in any performace problem is: is this really a problem, or am I, the manager, actually micromanaging the situation? If it continues as-is, will there be a real and valid problem, or is the employee simply doing things differently than I would do them? Validating that a problem actually exists is important; micromanaging is not a good leadership skill!

Assuming the problem is real, the second question is: as the manager, what do I want to change and happen differently?

In this case, the manager wanted to know whether there was a prioritization or workflow problem, and wanted to be informed of anything they might be asked about in the employee’s absence. Without understanding both of those objectives, any conversation with the employee is unlikely to be effective in the long run.

The second question is, what’s keeping the employee from performing as desired? Most people sincerely want to do a good job, and that’s important to remember.

In this case, the employee is a visual processor: they need those handwritten notes in front of them in order to stay on top of what needs to be done.

So, how do we solve the problem without disrupting what the employee needs?

Habit stacking

To introduce something new, it’s helpful to leverage what’s known as “habit stacking”: incorporating the new thing into something they’re already doing routinely. In this case, my client asked the employee to include listing the outstanding items in a close-of-day routine they’ve already been doing for years. That close-of-day process is an established habit. And it’s always easier to add something to an existing behavior pattern than to create an entirely new process – especially when the new process isn’t how someone naturally operates.

We’ll see how it goes. We’ll tweak as necessary. Because growth and development, whether of your employees or for yourself personally, is always an ongoing process!

I have several program options for training and supporting managers in learning skills such as these, from cohort-based to individual, including training and / or coaching. Contact me to learn more.