Sohan's Blog

Things I'm Learning

How Does Low Performance Look Like?

Beginning with a story here. Back in 2008, I was a couple of years out of college and working for a software company in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Like many of my classmates from my college, I was studying GRE alongside my job for a PhD admission in a reputable US university. That process being long and uncertain, I also applied for an MBA program at the University of Dhaka as a backup plan. The GRE preparation came in very handy and I qualified for the evening MBA program. I started MBA classes in January 2009 before the universities in USA and Canada made their decision on my application. There, I took a course on Management. I was too naive and still too much an engineer to pay attention.

But this image that our professor drew on the board got stuck in my head to this day.


Fast forward a decade later and I still like how cleanly it captures the essence of performance of an employee as a combination of the employee’s ability, level of motivation, and an enabling environment.

Given this is how high-performers are, it’s possible to plot a similar graph for low performers as a diagnostic report. If such a diagnosis is right, it can provide a valuable strategy for managers and employees to work towards improving employee performance. For example, if an employee lacks skill and motivation but fits very well within the work environment, a manager can focus on skills training and suggest therapies or employ various techniques to increase motivation. Similarly, if an employee is unable to acquire the skills for a particular job, focusing on motivation or changing the environment for that employee may not fix the low performance issue.

In the past 14 years of my time as a professional, I’ve seen several symptoms of low performance. Here I present a list of such symptoms for you to think about and may be use as an exercise to diagnose the performance problems in terms of ability, motivation, and environment related factors. For each of these symptoms, you can try to visualize the chart and come up with interventions that can help improving employee performance.

  1. New hire is too slow to ramp up: You were impressed by a candidate during the interview. The same interview process was used to find many high performers in the past. But this employee is struggling to ramp up.

  2. Knowledge vs. application: You have an employee who’s always studying job related literature and shows a great deal of interest in training, but can’t translate the knowledge into application.

  3. Complains about the lack of time: You have an employee struggling to produce the best outcome. In your one:one meeting, the employee always complains about lack of time even after you give him/her the time.

  4. Frequently runs into conflicts: Your most skilled employee is causing too many conflicts within the team.

  5. Can’t write thoughts down: You have an employee who’s been unhappy about things and spreading general negativity in the team. When you want them to write it down, they are unable to produce a precise writeup about the problems and potential solutions.

  6. Doesn’t make hard decisions timely: You have a leader that stays away from making hard decisions. In their mind, they want someone else to force them take the hard decision.

  7. Isn’t aware of better ways to solve old problems: You have an employee who’s expert in certain ways of delivering work but lacks awareness of newer and more efficient ways.

  8. Doesn’t take initiative: You encourage and reward employees to take initiatives that help the business. Yet, you see an employee is not taking any noteworthy initiatives.

For performance problems like these, the good news is, once you can diagnose the problem as factors of skill, motivation, and environment, you can deploy the right intervention to turn things around. I found this simple diagnosis method to be helpful in my career, and may be that’s why the image got stuck in my head for so long.

I hope this helps you, too.