Skills are Only Half the Equation for Success

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Summary:

Managers work hard to hire the right people for the job. Yet sometimes, the work doesn't go as well as we think it should. Was it a bad hire? Has the person developed a bad attitude? Maybe, but before you jump to conclusions, look at the other half of the performance equation.

Many years ago, psychologist Kurt Lewin reduced the mysteries of human behavior to this simple statement:

B = ƒ(P,E)

Behavior is a function of the person and the environment

Of course, it's not that simple. But I still find this notation useful, because it reminds me that the skills and abilities of the person aren't the only factors that contribute performance.

Much of the time, organizations focus on the Person part of the equation. That's important, because our work requires intelligent people with a wide range of functional skills, technical and domain knowledge, and appropriate interpersonal skills. Most managers work hard to hire the right people. Managers also provide coaching and feedback to help people hone their skills and develop their capabilities.

But that's only half the equation.

Organizational factors, corporate culture, policies, and the direct work environment influence performance, too. The good news is that you can influence the environment for your group in ways that increase performance.

Are You Creating an Environment for Success?
Let's assume that you've hired bright, capable people who have the appropriate skills and qualities for the job. They have the technical skills the job demands, they know the domain, and they're familiar with the product. Yet the work isn't going as well as you think it should. Maybe it's the environment, not the person. Look at these areas to see if you can improve the environment for success.

People need to know what the priorities are. Managers don't (and can't) make all the decisions about how work is done. Managers need to establish clear priorities so that the people closest to the work can make good decisions. Communicate a clear mission and ensure that each person understands his top three priorities. People perform better when they understand the mission of the group and what's most important.

People can't do their best without the right tools for the job. But hardware and tools, of course, aren't the only resources people need. They need time, access to expertise, and training. No one I know can manufacture time, but setting clear priorities and keeping the workload reasonable reduce the sense of overwhelming demands. When budgets are tight, find inexpensive ways to feed the need for training and expertise. Offer to buy books for a lunchtime study group and support access to content websites and other free sources of information.

People desire respect. Every once in a while I hear a manager assert that people work best when they're a little afraid. I don't buy that. Show respect by keeping promises, communicating openly, and listening to other people's ideas. Don't take phone calls and pages or check email during meetings, especially one-on-one meetings.

People want challenging work. Make work assignments based on interests, or better yet, work with your team to have them self-organize. That way, people will have a chance to choose work that appeals to them. Now, every group has some scut work. Rather than assign that to one unfortunate person, rotate responsibility for the work no one really enjoys, but everyone recognizes is necessary.

People want recognition and appreciation. I'm not talking rewards here, monetary or otherwise. Humans crave genuine acknowledgement for their contributions at work-both concrete accomplishments and the intangible ways they contribute to the spirit and success of the group. Let people know that you notice and appreciate them every week. I don't think saying "thank you" or "good job" is good enough. I like to address the person directly, like this: "Don, I appreciate you for shipping that data update on time. It makes a big difference to our clients."

About the author

Esther Derby's picture Esther Derby

A regular StickyMinds.com and Better Software magazine contributor, Esther Derby is one of the rare breed of consultants who blends the technical issues and managerial issues with the people-side issues. She is well known for helping teams grow to new levels of productivity. Project retrospectives and project assessments are two of Esther's key practices that serve as effective tools to start a team's transformation. Recognized as one of the world's leaders in retrospective facilitation, she often receives requests asking her to work with struggling teams. Esther is one of the founders of the AYE Conference. She co-author of Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. She has presented at STAREAST, STARWEST and the Better Software Conference & EXPO. You can read more of Esther's musings on the wonderful world of software at www.estherderby.com and on her weblog at www.estherderby.com/weblog/blogger.html. Her email is derby@estherderby.com.

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