The Potential/Performance Gap

Have you ever looked at someone in your organization and thought to yourself – “ if only she would ever live up to her potential.” You know from her moments of brilliance that she has so much to offer, but more often than not, her performance is fine, just not fabulous or even exceptional. Work with enough people and you will likely come across a number of them whom you could describe this way.

Now, if you ever wonder why there is a frequent gap between performance and capability, you may need to look no further than in the mirror. There is plenty of research, along with my own experiences that strongly indicate the biggest roadblock in getting someone to work consistently at his or her full potential is leadership.

Admittedly, I am biased, since my work for the past thirty years has been in the area of leadership development. Now, being biased can be very limiting, yet being self-aware of a bias can be a real strength. It forces you to look very hard at a variety of factors, in order to prove that your point of view is accurate, not just a comfortable mindset.

Therefore, I am frequently examining the impact of leadership on performance, compared to other factors. And here is what I usually see.

Employee engagement findings are consistent in showing that somewhere in the neighborhood of 30% of employees are very engaged in and committed to their work, doing their best and attempting to live up to their potential. 20% are quite disengaged, some even actively seeking to derail or sabotage the efforts of others or the organization as a whole. The remaining nearly 50% are in-between, doing pretty much what is expected. You might want to think about the breakdown of your team or organization, and unbiasedly assess how they compare to this research.

I have met people in all categories. Not surprising, all groups within a given organization have similar workspaces and tools. Pay bands for given levels have some range and flexibility, but differences in pay are usually based on performance or tenure. And, many times, the work to be done or the customers to be served are relatively similar. When one ticks off the factors from a cubicle with windows, to a free lunch in the gourmet dining room, there does not seem to be any of these factors that is” the one” which produces more highly engaged and higher performing people.

Maybe you can test this. Give your higher potential, underperformers a bonus, or enhance their benefits, and see if performance consistent tracks upward – for longer than a month.

Now try this. Provide those whom you believe are not measuring up to their potential, with more leadership. Set down with them and actively listen to their perspectives and opinions. Provide them support and helpful coaching. Praise them for excellent work. Tell them how important they are and how much the team or company really needs them. Provide them with challenging and exciting opportunities.. Inspire them with meaningful and important reasons for their work. And help them grow to be better tomorrow, in all aspects of their lives, than they are today.

People check out and performance suffers, when some of these leadership actions are missing. And yes, this is even true of people you may have formally identified as your high-potential, future leaders. Perhaps more so than others, they can easily become disenchanted when they are acknowledged for their apparent capabilities, only to be virtually ignored going forward.

Remember that you don’t seek out and hire people with track records of dropping performance. You create them!

Although one client with whom I worked would swear that the reason for every significant issue in her company was a lack of leadership. I am not yet in that camp. (In all fairness, she did admit exaggerating a bit on this!) For there are some, who seem to be content in performing lower than their capabilities, no matter how effective and intentional your leadership.  It is just not wise to assume that most performance problems are a result of bad people.

In attacking performance gaps, I would just simply suggest that before you try the complicated and often expensive strategies of pay, benefits, fancy buildings, and the like, give leadership a try. Just be advised that this will require you to make yourself vulnerable by accepting personal accountability for the progress (positive or negative) of your people. I encourage you to step up to this performance challenge and not merely use company policies around pay, office space, etc. as the convenient excuse for lower performance.

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