I have worked with several organizations over the last few years which on paper looked to be phenomenal, but ended up with less than consistent results. Most possessed a very talented staff, good leaders, solid customer service, and a demanded for their product; yet, there was never more a year or so of individual performance consistency. The variation in individual and team productivity looked like a small sailboat being tossed about in a big storm. There would be a period of brilliance where the organization provided that it had what it took to be an industry leader to only be followed by chaos and anxiety. In each case, individual performance variations were the root cause of the larger, organizational inconsistency in outcomes. Although these cases were extreme, it is likely we have all supervised an employee who possessed considerable potential and moments of real capability, yet demonstrated poor consistency in performance.
Most of us consider past performance to be the best predictor of future performance. Although the predictive power of the recent past may not precisely predict the near future, it is one of the better indicators in most things. Individual work performance functions in a similar manner. Whatever specific performance I was at last year, I should be minor percentage above or below this year. There are exceptions, but they tend to relate to major events resulting in change.
HCS in 2010 conducted a survey of the performance of information technology professionals to examine the change in performance from one year to the next and the reason for change. The sample included performance results for 400 professionals at different points in their careers observed over a twenty year period. The results varied within a very small increment around the initial performance level. Some employees increased while other decreased. If there was a sudden, large increase or decrease, then typically the results returned to the previous trend. In other words, most people stayed on the same trajectory throughout their career or resembled the sloping graph from the last post.
Although the sample is relatively small and confined to a single industry, some interesting findings appear in Figure 1.
Explanations of variation in performance arise from two core areas: personal or professional. The most reoccurring positive personal factors include personality (especially a clear understanding of self, organizational ability, commitment to personal success, and ability to work with others), ability to learn new things, and energy level. Not surprisingly, the most important professional factors include capabilities or skills necessary to be successful, relevant experience, and engagement.
Personal reasons that reduce performance include anything in one’s personal life that draws their attention away from work and diminishes their overall performance. A multitude of personal issues can impact work performance: failed relationships, poor mental health, personal health issues, sick children, aging parents, or just an over commitment in one’s personal life. Professional challenges that reduce performance pertain poor past experiences, lack of capability to meet job demands, and a lack engagement. The factors most linked to a lack of engagement relate primarily to stress, frustration, burnout from the work assigned or a change in leadership.
In the simplest sense, there are three basic phases that would be of interest when determining how performance changes: initial, middle, and end of career. Positive and negative factors were examined for each phase. The impact of positive factors varied over the course of a person’s career while the negative factors were more random. Specific events, assignments, or changes seemed to prompt a negative reaction more than simply a phase of one’s career. Figure 2 illustrates the positive factors that are most important by phase. In the beginning of one’s career, personality, capabilities, and experiences all significantly impact performance. This coincides well with the idea that hiring is one of the most important performance decisions that an organization can make. During the broad, middle years, energy, aptitude to learn, and engagement become more critical. If energy wanes or there is an inability to keep pace with the industry, the level of performance will decrease. In the last phase before retirement, personality becomes less important as we reach the highest level of professional socialization, while energy, aptitude to learn, and engagement remain significant.
Given these results, it is important we all ask ourselves the following questions about our organizations:
- What characteristics lead to an employee reaching high performance as soon as possible?
- What characteristics lead to an employee sustaining high performance levels for a long period of time?
- What can an organization do to return a high performer to high performance?