Are you doing your best?

Every so often, the Prime Directive comes up on one of the lists I follow. And inevitably someone says something like “I don’t believe everyone is doing the best s/he could. I know I don’t always do the best job I could.”

There are a couple of assumptions behind this statement.

1) I suspect that when people say this they expect that they can always perform at their peak level. And of course, they don’t always perform up to their own (high) expectations. We aren’t machines. Human performance is variable.

Here are some of the reasons a well-intentioned person may not reach their peak performance on any given day.

  • Physical state: a cold, headache, lack of sleep all affect performance.
  • Emotional state: when people are off even keel (high or low) it can affect performance.
  • Preoccupation: events outside the task can effect our work. It could be worry about a family illness, or excitement about an upcoming concert, or apprehension about a conversation with the boss schedule for later in the week.
  • Motivation: how motivated is the person to do the work

    That’s the stuff people bring with.

    The task itself influences whether someone does “his best:”

  • Is the task interesting to the person doing the task?
  • Is it challenging?
  • Does the person believe it’s achievable?
  • Does the person believe its the right thing to do?
  • Is the person performing the task in a way that makes sense to him or following another’s process?
  • What is the perceived priority of the task?
  • What other tasks are on the list?

    Physical surroundings affect our performance, too.

  • Is the workstation is ergonomically correct?
  • Is there sufficient light?
  • Is there natural light?
  • The noise level
  • Interior air quality

    And there’s stuff about the working environment and the organizational system:

  • Relationships with co-workers
  • Relationship with manager
  • Access to resources
  • Reward systems
  • Procedures and processes
  • Corporate culture

    And skills:

  • Does the person have the skills and abilities necessary to do the task?

    This is the soup we’re all in every day, and it affects the way we perform. My best will look different on a day when I didn’t get enough sleep, I’m coming down with a cold, I’m not that interested in the task or my office is a little chilly, than on a day when I feel great, I like what I’m doing and the thermostat is adjusted correctly.

    2) I suspect that when some people balk at the Prime Directive, they have someone in mind who isn’t doing a very good job.

    What might cause a person to not do a very good job?

  • He may not have the skills.
  • He may not care about the job.
  • He may be burnt out.
  • He may be mentally ill.
  • He may be drunk.
  • He may be biding his time until he quits for a better job.

    Lots of reasons. And he’s still doing the best he could given those circumstances.

    The Prime Directive doesn’t mean that every person’s best is good enough for the job at hand. It doesn’t mean that people who aren’t doing an adequate job should have a job for life. It doesn’t mean that people don’t need feedback, and they don’t need to improve their performance if they want to remain employed.

    The Prime Directive says make a generous interpretation. Recognize that people are fallible, and their performance is variable. Don’t blame them. But don’t placate them either. It’s about treating people with respect.

    BTW, if you’re not familiar with it, here’s the text for Norm Kerth’s Prime Directive:

    Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.