Top performers— We wish that every employee could be one! Some employees just start out great, do what is expected and more, and are easy to manage. You might find 10-20% of employees in this category at most employers.

Average employees— Other employees come in every day and “do their job”. I refer to these as “solid citizens” and they can be depended on to meet expectations most of the time.  This type of employee is typically 70-80% of the workforce at most organizations.

Low performers— Lastly are the employees that truly give us “People Pains”—they have attitude or performance issues that cost us time, attention, grief and aggravation.  If this employee has been with you a while you have probably learned to “put up” with these Pains. “They do most of their job, most of the time.” (I will devote next month’s newsletter to how to address these low performers… watch your inbox!)

To solve an issue, you first need to identify the source of the problem. I know, humans are complex creatures, but luckily there are only 4 sources of employee performance problems!

How to improve employee performance

Step 1: Compare employee’s performance to Job Competency Profile duties and metrics (results).

Step 2: Identify specific performance areas that are below expectation (or could be improved)

Step 3: Categorize into one of 4 sources: Ability, Motivation, Values, or External

Step 4: Discuss performance plan with employee to address cause (job re-engineering, training, attitude)

Key areas that influence performance


These are the “hard” (technical) and “soft” (competencies) skills of an employee plus personality traits.

Knowledge- skills- abilities (KSA) and competencies range from m “innate” abilities that are very hard to change (such as the personality trait of extroversion) to “trainable” abilities such as product knowledge or computer skills.

These abilities should be clearly defined and screened as part of an effective selection process. If a position required problem solving ability (not easily trainable) then you need to hire candidates that have this competency.

Training and development is a key to improved employee performance. Everyone could learn more about their industry, product/ service, customers, technical tools, and can develop competencies such as communication. Top organizations continually develop employees to learn and grow.

An important aspect of performance is matching an employee’s ability to job requirements.  If you have  B or C employee that is loyal and motivated, re-engineer the job duties to complement his strengths, and move the other job duties to a co-worker with contrasting abilities. For example, give reports to the detail oriented employee and greeting customers to the outgoing and talkative co-worker.

Ability is if the employee “Can Do” the job.


These are the (external) factors that influence an employee’s (intrinsic) motivation through feedback and rewards systems. When an employee is engaged, she has an emotional attachment to co-workers and the company. This leads to loyalty, motivation, and then high performance.

Organizations often do things that de-motivate employees, such as having minimal or negative feedback about performance, making changes or decisions without considering the impact on employees, stifling creativity or independence with rules or micromanaging, and not “appreciating” good work.

Conversely, organizations can empower and engage employees by providing clear expectations about work performance, and then recognizing and rewarding those employees that exceed expectations.

If an employee has the abilities, motivation influences whether an employee “Will Do” the job.


People have core values or belief systems that they carry with them, such as a desire to help others, a distrust in authority, or a good “work ethic”. Employers are not going to change these beliefs, so it is important that you select employees that support an organization’s core values – this is called Culture Fit. Culture is the most effective motivational tool an organization has to impact performance. Essentially, “this is how we do things at ABC Org.”

Even employees with a generally good attitude and values that align with the organization can have specific beliefs that impact their compliance and performance. In a recent local presentation, Craig Hickman recounted and example of ER nurses at Mass General Hospital. They were expected to collect “next of kin” data at admission, but this was recorded only 42% of the time. The organization spent months training 1500 nurses to do this, but the results changed only slightly to 47%. The solution was to change the belief that this information was not relevant or a “waste of time” by sharing stories of specific patients when contacting a relative saved a life. The results jumped to 92%–  it was the change in belief that changed behavior!

External Factors

Even if employees have the ability, motivation and values that support good performance, there may be outside factors that prevent results. These can be a lack of resources (unreliable equipment or not enough capacity), structure / process constraints (adding a new customer takes 32 steps and 7 days), or possibility personal issues (what is going on outside of work?).  A frank conversation with employees can uncover some of these. If many people in the same job are having issues then look beyond individuals to systems.

To read more about how to motivate your average employee, read our blog post “Employees do their job okay, but do not seem really committed to be excellent.”