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Optimizing Performance: Three Essentials for Success

Leadership and Management

Optimizing Performance: Three Essentials for Success

In a recent national survey, nearly 3,000 American academic leaders identified problem behavior of employees as their top concern. Lackluster performance was the most common problem; bullying and being passive-aggressive were less common but the most troubling. Most of us have worked with a person whose conduct disrupts or interferes with the performance and productivity of others, sometimes of the entire department. Confronting a problem performer with confidence and optimizing their performance are what this article is about.    

My colleague David Whetten, a professor of organizational behavior, spent 40 years at two universities and consulted with numerous business organizations, researching factors that influence behavior and performance. David developed what he calls a “performance equation.” He has given me permission to share his equation and to discuss its application. 

Performance = Expectations x Ability x Motivation

This equation asserts that people’s optimal performance is dependent on knowing what is expected of them and whether they are able and motivated to deliver. Note the mathematical construction of the equation, which makes all the elements indispensable. If any one component is zero, productivity is zero. In my years of interacting with academic leaders, I have found Dave’s equation to be a very straightforward and effective way to diagnose the root of poor performance, and also a very helpful reference when interacting with the poor performer.


“Expectations are the deal breaker,” Whetten says. “If there is ambiguity around expectations, people will undergo performance stress of the worst kind.” Unless performance standards and measures have been clarified and agreed upon, having a meeting to discuss unacceptable performance can be awkward and stressful for both the supervisor and the employee. 

It is most helpful when all members of a department have taken time to identify what guides and inspires them, as well as the productivity and etiquette they expect of one another. These expectations should be approved by the entire unit, and revisited frequently. It is then relatively easy for an administrator to confront an individual’s performance that is deviant, and ask him or her to discuss the gap between his or her behavior and the unit’s well-known norms. It is, of course, appropriate to consider what is specifically expected of each person in his or her unique role within the unit, and whether there is any reason the basic standards might not apply to that person, or might need to be customized for an individual’s situation. 


Once expectations have been clarified, it is important to determine whether the individual has the essential skills and wherewithal to do the job. A common error is for a supervisor to confuse ability with motivation. With technological innovations in high-turnover fields of knowledge—including frequently updated systems to access that knowledge—it is becoming increasingly common for older and even midcareer professionals to find themselves discouragingly behind and feeling obsolete in their own specialty. Obsolescence is, of course, embarrassing, and an employee may feel, and even portray, a lack of motivation rather than disclose his or her inadequacy. With care, a supervisor can usually find a way to determine whether an employee has the necessary knowledge and capacity to meet expectations. If some form of updating or renewal can be arranged, or if additional resources can be provided, there must be an understanding that expectations will be reevaluated once any such help has been provided.  


When supervisors in any organization are asked which of the three equation components account for poor performance, the reply is usually “lack of motivation.” Whetten and I have found, however, that lack of motivation is rarely the primary cause of performance failures. Only after expectations and ability have been carefully considered and all misunderstandings around these two components removed should a leader turn to asking, “Is your heart really in this?”

Leaders must be careful when trying to evaluate another person’s motivation. Motivation is sort of a black box in a person’s makeup, and misdiagnosis is common. As pointed out under ability, a person may fake lack of motivation to cover a lack of ability. That said, by deploying consequences a supervisor can influence a colleague’s motivation considerably. Author Kerry Patterson and colleagues, in their book, Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior, point out: 

Consequences motivate. Motivation isn’t something you do to someone. People already want to do things. They’re motivated by the consequences they anticipate. And since any action leads to a variety of consequences, people act on the basis of the overall consequences bundle.  

Consequences are so important, in fact, that Whetten’s performance equation could be rewritten this way.

Performance = Expectations x Ability x Motivation Consequences

A leader must be consistent in the application of consequences; inconsistency can create serious problems—whether a person’s performance is stellar or problematic. When there are no consequences for substandard performance, the employee will assume that no one is watching, and poor behavior can be expected to persist and even become worse. On the other hand, if positive performance is not recognized, a top performer might become discouraged and no longer be motivated to continue striving. Effective consequences are more than just talk; they are based on action—a reward given or a privilege lost.

Tina Gunsalus, director of the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics (NCPRE), has a surprising recommendation when it comes to imposing consequences. She suggests that supervisors read a book on dog training, and points out that just as with dogs, consistency with people is essential— one should always reward good behavior and never reward bad behavior.

Confronting with confidence

Although they are not fun, confrontations comprise the core of accountability. Here are some tips:

  1. Never wink at or ignore violations of expectations or protocol. 
  2. Start by evaluating yourself and the situation. How much is your own prejudice and lack of diligence to blame?
  3. Allow people to save face; visit in private. Ask them to share their perspective about the gap between their performance and what is expected; then let them talk while you listen.
  4. Be patient. If someone has been performing poorly for a long time, don’t expect the person to reform overnight.

R. Kent Crookston is professor and director of academic administrative support for Brigham Young University. He is the author of Working with Problem Faculty: A Six-Step Guide for Department Chairs (Jossey-Bass, 2012).

R. Kent Crookston will deliver a Magna Online Seminar, “Optimizing Performance: Three Essentials for Success,” on November 18, 2015. Register at www.magnapubs.com.

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