Dealing with Poor Performance

 Lack of Ability, or Low Motivation?


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For every hundred men hacking away at the branches of a diseased tree,
only one will stoop to inspect the roots.

– Chinese proverb

Are individual members of your team performing less well than you’d hoped? If so, this proverb can take on great significance. To figure out what’s causing the performance issue, you have to get to the root of the problem.

But because employee performance affects organizational performance, we tend to want to look for a quick fix. Would a training course help Ted? Or should you move him into a different role?

These types of solutions focus largely on the ability of the person performing the job. Performance, though, is a function of both ability and motivation.

Performance = Ability x Motivation


  • Ability is the person’s aptitude, as well as the training and resources supplied by the organization
  • Motivation is the product of desire and commitment

Someone with 100% motivation and 75% ability can often achieve above-average performance. But a worker with only 25% ability won’t be able to achieve the type of performance you expect, regardless of his or her level of motivation.


Diagnosing Poor Performance

So, before you can fix poor performance, you have to understand its cause. Does it come from lack of ability or low motivation?

Incorrect diagnoses can lead to lots of problems later on. If you believe an employee is not making enough of an effort, you’ll likely put increased pressure on him or her to perform. But if the real issue is ability, then increased pressure may only make the problem worse.

Low ability may be associated with the following:

  • Over-difficult tasks.
  • Low individual aptitude, skill, and knowledge.
  • Evidence of strong effort, despite poor performance.
  • Lack of improvement over time.

People with low ability may have been poorly matched with jobs in the first place. They may have been promoted to a position that’s too demanding for them. Or maybe they no longer have the support that previously helped them to perform well.


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Enhancing Ability


1.                Resupply.

2.                Retrain.

3.                Refit.

4.                Reassign.

5.                Release.



Improving Motivation




1.                Setting of performance goals.

2.                Provision of performance assistance.

3.                Provision of performance feedback.


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