Skills Are Only Half the Equation for Success

This article first appeared on stickminds.com.

(c) Esther Derby 2004-2010

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.”

Are There Environmental Roadblocks Stifling Performance?

Suppose you’ve done all of these things (and more) to establish an environment for success. Your work is not done.

Corporate culture and norms are part of the environment and so are policies, procedures, measures, and reward systems. Examine the organizational environment to see if there are other obstacles that keep people from doing their best.

Are there factors that actually punish people for doing a good job? I once worked with a support group that was having a crisis in customer satisfaction. Support agents were expected to meet certain targets for the length of calls.That worked fine with simple problems, but when a tough problem that took more than a minute or two to fix came along, it was a problem. The measure actually punished people who went the extra mile for the customer and stayed on the phone long past the allotted time. These folks had the knowledge and skills to perform, but an environmental factor (a poorly designed measure) was in the way.

Sometimes policies and procedures are the culprit in stifling performance. One organization I know of requires bi-weekly budget reporting and forecasting. It can take up to seven working days to assemble all the bits of information needed to create a report. The procedure is difficult and frustrating, and the time people spend every month on budgets means they aren’t doing other valuable work. In another group, each team member is required to provide written feedback to every other team member every quarter. It wasn’t so bad when there were five team members, but now that there are twenty people in the group… well, you can do the math.

Pile on enough environmental roadblocks and people become frustrated and cynical. And frustrated, cynical people are less likely to do a good job.

Individual managers can’t always change measurement systems, policies, and procedures. Insulate your group where you can and put the rest in context.

Remember that an individual’s skills and abilities aren’t the only factors in performance. Managers need to attend to both the person and the environment when assessing performance. Don’t wait until the next performance evaluation season rolls around. Evaluate the work environment now. Does the management infrastructure enable high performance? Are you working to remove or reduce the obstacles that are hampering performance? What else can you do to create an environment for success?

4 thoughts on “Skills Are Only Half the Equation for Success

  1. Interesting post, thanks Esther. I have worked with some people who’s ideal environment is command-and-control oriented. In fact, autonomy to these types of people is risky for the business. On the other hand, I’ve seen the demotivation that can set in to a self-motivated person who is continuously told how to do his work.

    As additional reading, i would point your readers to Herzberg’s two-factor theory and specifically the hygiene factors he mentions as good considerations for the environment.

  2. Hi Esther,

    Very good post!

    You’ve well summarized essential points that are needed in order to create high performance organizations. Still, it’s not rare to find companies which are suffering with environments that lead people to misbehavior. Even worse, besides that this kind of company are usually weak in skills. I mean not technical but personal skills. Sometimes people are genius technically speaking, but don’t know how to create trustful relationships.

    Your post reminded me the job of my friend Luiz Parzianello (@lcparzianello). Take a look at theses slides, specially the slide number 9: http://www.slideshare.net/parzianello/writing-effective-project-stories

    The concept is better explained here: http://www.internet-of-the-mind.com/nlp_logical_levels.html

  3. Interesting article. I find when coaching individuals in their job search or career, the environment is one of the most important yet most overlooked factor in their search for job satisfaction. One of the keys to thriving in your career is knowing where you thrive! I even teach folks how to assess the environment during the interview process. It’s good to see someone looking at it from the other side – creating an environment where people can thrive. When those 2 come together, something special (and productive and satisfiying) is bound to occur.

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