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How can you tell if poor performance is due to ability or motivation?

When considering performance deficiencies, a critical question we always ask is whether this a matter of ability or motivation?

Why is that important? Let’s consider a situation where an employee is being deficient in a particular task. The employee is observed attempting to complete a task, but continually is not completing it at a satisfactory level of performance.

The first question should be: Is the employee consciously or subconsciously being deficient or defiant of rules or directions, etc.? Let’s assume that they are not consciously attempting to be deficient and are not actually trying to be defiant of rules or directions, etc. Then the next question would be: Is this a matter of ability or motivation?

Let’s look at some ability questions: Does the employee have the skills needed to produce desired results? • Are they working at a different skill level than they are capable? Does the employee require additional training or testing? • Does the employee actually have the requisite skills to complete the tasks? Have expectations and priorities been clearly explained?

• Does the employee understand the expectations? How do you know? Does the employee have sufficient resources?

• Materials, tools, time, etc.? Are obstacles or barriers preventing good performance? • Poor policies, ineffective processes, time constraints, etc.? Does the employee have the innate talent for this type of work? • Sometimes people just aren’t capable of certain tasks, functions, etc.

Let’s look at some motivation questions: Does the employee understand why performance is important? • Do they understand the importance of their (fractal) particular piece of the entire process and how they fit into the overall picture?

Is good performance being recognized and rewarded? • Is the employee getting feedback, and enough to help them continue to be motivated? Are there negative consequences for poor performance?

• Without negative consequences for poor performance the “who cares what I do” attitude takes hold and satisfaction, motivation and performance will slide. Is the employee angry or resentful about something? • You’ll only know if you have open, honest communication and feedback with the employee.  Is the employee bored or burned out?

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER… Understanding whether the problem is a matter of ability or motivation greatly changes what actions you should be taking as a supervisor to attempt to bring the performance up to acceptable standards. Ability issues are usually easier to identify and correct with training, assignment, or other specific actions. Motivation issues are frequently more difficult to assess and sometimes are hidden from supervisors because the supervisor may be part of the motivation issue. For this reason motivation issues are more difficult and take a longer time to correct the performance.

QUOTES TO PUT INTO PRACTICE… “Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.” - Lou Holtz About the Author: Dr. Chris Fuzie is the Owner of CMF Leadership Consulting and a trainer/coach/consultant for leadership of public, private, profit, and non-profit organizations. Chris holds a Doctorate of Education (Ed.D), M.A. and B.A. in Organizational Leadership, and has graduate certificates in Human Resources and Criminal Justice Education from the University of Virginia, while attending the FBI National Academy. Chris retired as the Assistant Division Commander of Investigations for Modesto Police Department after 28 years of public service.

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