12/18/2014 12:45 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2015

Ability, Skill or Will?

Some employee performance issues stubbornly persist even when the manager has been diligent in addressing them with regular high structure, high substance communication. At that point it is important to take a step back and ask yourself if you are missing something. Have you properly diagnosed the problem? Do you need to look at the problem in a new way? At this stage of the game, nearly all performance problems fall into one or more of three categories: ability, skill or will.

  • If the problem is ability, your employee's natural strengths are probably not a good match with some or all of the tasks and responsibilities in her current role. If this is the case, your best option is to change the tasks and responsibilities that are a poor match and replace them with work that is a better fit. If you cannot do that, you may have to face the fact that you have the wrong person for the job.
  • If the problem is skill -- an employee is missing knowledge, hasn't mastered techniques, or lacks necessary tools or resources -- it is your job to make sure the employee gets what she needs to succeed. Find the gaps in her skills and fill them by offering her training or the right tools and resources. If you cannot get her what she needs, it is your responsibility to work with the employee to figure out how to limp along as well as possible without it.
  • The hardest nut to crack, of course, is motivation -- the will to perform. Every person is different, so what motivates each person is different. But in the case of persistent performance problems, the real question is: "What demotivates a person?"

Sometimes an employee has an internal issue, maybe a personality trait that is not going to go away. Maybe the employee has an actual physical or psychological pathology that requires the help of a trained therapist or doctor. If you have an employee who is underperforming due to an internal issue, your only option is to refer the employee to employee services or HR so that he can get professional help. You are not a doctor or a psychologist or a best friend. At work, you have to be the boss. Sometimes these issues can be sensitive and need to be handled by someone who is equipped to handle them.

More often, though, an employee is demotivated at work because of external reasons. Maybe there is something that the employee wants that he is not getting -- better work conditions, a flexible schedule, the right to choose his coworkers or tasks. Is there any need or want you can tap into to give this employee more incentive to start working smarter, faster and better?