Employee Performance NOT Just Determined By Employee Ability

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How Interaction of Individual and System Variables Determines Individual Employee Performance

In this chapter I’ve pointed out how important it is to look at system variables as they affect individual performance. So, you may be asking, “If system variables are so powerful in determining individual employee performance, why do the 10 employees who report to me, who all work in the exact same environment, perform at such different levels?”

That’s a great question. The answer will help you better understand individual performance, which is after all, the focus of performance reviews.

Rather than answering the question outright, consider the situation of marathon runners. Marathons are held all over the world. In particular, the Olympic games move around, taking place sometimes in hot climates, sometimes in cooler climates, sometimes at high altitudes, and sometimes at lower ones.

Those factors—systems/environmental variables—are going to affect the performance of the athletes. So, it’s fair to assume that the average performance in a marathon in Mexico City (high altitude, very hot) is going to be lower than in a marathon at a lower altitude in a cooler locale. That’s the average performance.

Generally the times will be longer.

Now here’s the interesting thing. Some runners will be less affected by the high altitudes and heat in the marathon in Mexico City. Perhaps because they’ve lived all their lives in similar environments or trained more effectively, they will not be as affected as other runners.
This interaction of individual characteristics and systems characteristics explains why we can have exceedingly varied performance in the same environment that is not a direct result of individual characteristics.

Let’s apply this to the earlier example of Jackie and the creative ad company. Her management style impedes the effectiveness of all her staff in one way or another, but some employees are affected less than others. Let’s take Bob. Bob’s a creative guy who’s always taken the position that it’s always better to ask for forgiveness after the fact than for permission in advance. So, even though Jackie insists on approving everything, Bob presents his ideas to the client first. Once the client is happy, Bob then sends the ideas to Jackie for approval after the fact. While Jackie gets annoyed sometimes, Bob is pleasing his customers so Jackie is not prepared to do much about it. As a result, Bob gets things done faster than his colleagues who abide by Jackie’s rules.

This doesn’t mean Bob is more creative or even better at customer relations. It just means that in this specific system or environment, Bob is able to perform better than his peers: he is simply less affected by the system’s barriers. If you change the system variables, he might appear to perform less well relative to his peers.


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Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992 by consultant and book author, Robert Bacal. Robert's books on performance management and reviews have been published by McGraw-Hill. He is available for consultation, training and keynote speaking on performance and management at work.


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