Identifying the gap between desired and actual performance is the most difficult part of solving performance problems. The reason is that we usually define the problem in very general and abstract terms (e.g., ‘‘Harriet’s got an attitude problem’’), or we label the individual with an accusation (e.g., ‘‘George is a slacker’’ or ‘‘Tony isn’t a team player’’), or we use metaphors (e.g., ‘‘Sally isn’t keeping her nose to the grindstone or her shoulder to the wheel’’). Although these statements may be true, none of them is helpful in determining what the exact difference is between what we want the individual to do and what the person is actually doing.
If the manager doesn’t clearly define the gap between what he wants and what he gets, he is not going to be successful in bringing about a change in the employee’s performance. The first step, therefore, is to define clearly and specifically what exactly the employee is doing that causes us concern, and then identify exactly what it is that we want the individual to do. The easiest way to do this is to imagine that you are talking with the individual about the situation. Quite sincerely, the employee says, ‘‘Boss, in this area that we’re talking about, I just don’t understand exactly what it is that you want me to do. I’ll do anything you want, but please tell me exactly what it is that I need to do for you to feel like I’m meeting your expectations?’’
How would you respond to that question—what would you say? Whatever you would say, write your answer down. It will probably be a very clear and unemotional statement of exactly what the desired performance is, without any generalizations or abstractions or labels.
Then assume that the employee asks, ‘‘Boss, I know I’m letting you down, but I don’t know exactly what it is that I’m doing wrong. Would you please tell me exactly what it is that I am doing that causes you concern?’’
Again, what would you say? And again, write down whatever you would say because it will probably be a very clear statement of the actual performance.
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Here are some examples of clear statements of desired and actual performance.
Issue: Smoking in an inappropriate area. Desired: Only smoke in the company’s official smoking areas. Actual: Bill Monroe was smoking outside the main entrance to the building. Although he was outside the building, he was not in one of the official smoking areas.
Issue: Doing personal business on company time. Desired: Do only company business when you are at work. Let me know when an assigned project has been completed, or ask one of your other team members if you can help them. Actual: Earlier this morning I noticed you reading a magazine ten minutes before your lunch period began.
Issue: Poor attendance. Desired: Be here, at your desk, fully prepared and ready to work every day at 8:30 a.m. Actual: On January 23, Susan arrived at her desk at 8:47 a.m. On February 1, she got to her desk just before 9:00 a.m. This morning she arrived at her desk at 8:37 a.m.
Many times, when you are dealing with an issue that concerns the quality of the individual’s performance, it’s difficult to come up with specific and precise statements of the gap between desired and actual performance. In this case, include examples of the difference between what you want and what you get:
Issue: Lack of teamwork. Desired: Every person in the department should demonstrate teamwork. Actual: Tony doesn’t always act as a team player. For example, when Charles and Olivia asked him for help with their project, Tony said, ‘‘That’s not in my job description.’’ When I asked everyone to submit one or two suggestions on how we could operate more effectively as a team, Tony was the only person in the department who did not submit any suggestions.
Until you can specify what the gap is between desired and actual performance on the employee’s part, you haven’t earned the right to ask the employee to close the gap.