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Article: Five Immediate Ways To Improve Job Performance Related Resources

Five Immediate Ways To Improve Job Performance
by Adrian Savage

1) Describe the job FULLY...

Nobody can do a good job if they aren't sure what they're supposed to be doing -- or what the boss and the business expects.

Okay, you all know this. But do you know that job descriptions and competency frameworks don't provide enough information to deal with this need?

Here's why. There are two parts to understanding a job. One is WHAT you must do -- the duties, responsibilities and general standards to be met. The other is HOW you're expected to approach these.

Should you stick firmly to the established procedures -- or show significant initiative? To focus on short-term wins or on long- term possibilities, even if it costs a little right now? Maybe both? Sure, but how much of each? Which is more important?

Over the years, organizations have developed better and better ways to describe what jobs contain. But we've largely ignored a key aspect of performance: how the job should be approached.

2) Clarify expectations...

Let's suppose there are two managers leading similar projects, both competent, committed and hard-working and both reporting to the same VP. Yet Manager 1 gets an A rating for performance and Manager 2 gets C. Why is this?

The VP who's their boss has many "soft" (i.e. qualitative) ideas and expectations about their roles, as well as the "hard" ones in the job descriptions and competency lists.

In judging performance, what matters most to her is someone who does everything laid down but adds a spark of initiative and strategic viewpoint. It's that which will move you from C to A.

3) Communicate, communicate, communicate...

Sadly, this organization is strong on "hard" data, but hasn't got a consistent way to communicate the rest -- the crucial elements that make for better performance. Failing on the "hard" data will get you fired in short order. But meeting them without the extra, qualitative requirements gets you a C performance rating at the most. In our example organization, "soft" aspects of the job are left to individual supervisors to handle, with very variable results.

Let's go back to Manager 2. He sees Manager 1 getting the praise, but doesn't see why. She's no more able than he is. He checks his job description and his objectives: he's meeting all of them. He checks the competency list: again, no problem. From his viewpoint, he's doing an excellent job and not getting the recognition due for it. It must be because the VP doesn't like him, he thinks.

So his motivation falls and with it his performance. The VP sees this as proof the C rating was right -- even generous. She tries to coach him to perform better, but there's no clear way to explain exactly what's missing. It comes out as a series of vague needs to "take a broader viewpoint" and "cope better with change."

The downward spiral continues until Manager 2 leaves or is fired. An able, committed person is lost for no good reason.

What would it take to rescue him and raise his performance from C to B, or even A?

The root of the difficulty is communication. Manager 2 -- and most of his colleagues, probably -- are used to getting nothing but "hard" job information.

Organizations badly need new ways to communicate the crucial qualitative, "soft" requirements for good performance in a way that is just as objective and rigorous. Only then will it be given equal importance with the "hard" data people are used to getting.

4) Limit "unforced errors"...

In the business world, forced errors occur when the competition has a better business model, better product, better service or better strategy. They outplay us. We struggle to keep up and make even more mistakes because of the pressure.

An unforced error is a mistake made without any reason other than lack of skill or composure. The fewer mistakes you make, the more likely you will win.

Misalignment is the most common source of unforced errors. If teams become so misaligned that they expend their energy in political games rather than co-operate for the common benefit; or if individuals are no longer aligned with their roles, the result will always be a series of unforced errors that will cost the organization dearly. The player who makes fewest mistakes is most likely to win, even against a generally superior opponent.

Habit is the most common cause of misalignment. We all suffer from a tendency to trust in what has worked before, even when it's obvious it isn't working this time. We miss the signs of change, misinterpret essential information and regard stubborn adherence to past precedent as determination and courage. If something isn't working, the only rational course of action is to do something different, not reinterpret reality to explain why it ought to work.

5) Don't over-supervise...

We've inherited a set of management ideas that is guaranteed to make things worse: ever closer supervision of supposed poor performers.

Most people value independence and work that's interesting and stimulating. Loss of performance is attributed to them personally, not to trying to cope with a poorly define role in a muddled structure, so their supervisor responds in the way most of us have been taught: by increasing supervision.

Close supervision is seen as oppressive. Independence and interest are lessened. Work becomes more stressful and less exciting. The response varies from nervous compliance to outright rebellion.

Either way, it's seen as a further symptom of the performance problem and supervision is tightened again. The spiral continues, until the subordinate leaves, gets fired or becomes so nervous about doing anything the boss hasn't pre-approved that he or she gets labeled as "lacking in commitment" or "low on initiative."

The cure worsens the problem until it becomes impossible to treat.

The answer is taking the time to find out the true cause of the situation. Is it individual incompetence or (more likely) uncoordinated expectations and poorly designed roles? If managers don't investigate fully before jumping into action that inflame the problem rather than curing it, we'll continue to waste valuable talent through using organizational "truths" and structural systems that are outmoded and ineffective.

Adrian has published in leading British and American publications and been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Chicago Tribune. An Englishman by birth, he lives in Tucson, Arizona and publishes Fat Cat Monthly ( THE resource for self improvement, personal growth and career development for knowledge workers; and E-Mentor (,an E-zine for people interested in applying ethical thinking to practical business leadership issues.

Adrian Savage may be contacted at


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