Building a Top 20 Workforce: Past Performance Doesn’t Predict Future Results

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Sep 27, 2013
This article is part of a series called Classic TLNT.

Editor’s Note: Sometimes readers ask about past TLNT articles. That’s why we republish a Classic TLNT post every Friday that some of you have requested.

.n the early 1800’s, the British textile industry was automating. New, wide-framed looms could be operated by cheap, unskilled labor, bringing more product to more people at better prices.

Displaced operators, however, were threatened by this change. They reacted by regularly storming textile manufacturers, smashing and destroying their new equipment. They called themselves Luddites.

That’s what happens when life changes too fast: people resist.

The same goes for people who insist interviews are the most accurate predictors of employee success. You might think of them as today’s HR Luddites.

Where DID these people come from?

Please do not tell me that the XYZ organization employs only the best. Look around. Are about 20 percent of the employees high performers, 20 percent low, and the rest just getting by? Are good managers few and far between? Did someone intentionally hire the average/low producers just to pad the payroll? If so, something must be wrong.

For example, most folks would agree:

  1. Job skills vary from job to job;
  2. People either have skills for a specific job or they don’t;
  3. It takes a long time (if ever) to turn an unskilled employee into a skilled one;
  4. Managers can quickly de-motivate the most skilled employee;
  5. Job applicants are encouraged to say or do anything to get a job (regardless of actual abilities);
  6. It takes using the right abilities from one moment to the next to generate results; and,
  7. Results, alone, tell us nothing about how the employee achieved them.

The Peter Principle lives!

Assuming high performance in one job will lead to high performance in the next has even inspired a book.

If you have not read it, you might want to check-out, The Peter Principle” by Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull, 1969. They observed that in virtually every organizational hierarchy, people are promoted based on performance in their last job. Eventually, people are promoted into a level of incompetency where they remain. Meanwhile, the body of work necessary to run the operation continues to be done by people who have not yet been promoted into their personal level of incompetence.

As one who has seen the inside of over 100 organizations, I find Peter’s observation right on target. How do you prevent The Peter Principle?

Specifically, effective promotion and placement decisions require knowing the critical skills that lead to performance. You have to have to break out of any system that relies entirely on past data (i.e., job performance, resume data, interviews, references, and so forth) and start using use hard-to-fake tools that are trustworthy and reliable

Using yesterday’s information to make tomorrow’s decisions

Individual performance varies widely among all professions. Have you ever wondered why, if people have similar degrees and certifications, there is such on-the-job difference between them?

Why does promoting a good techie often yield a poor manager? Why does increasing someone’s responsibility often lead to crash-and-burn performance; or, why does promoting a good salesperson or techie to manager often lead to major problems?

In short, it’s because: 1) organizations seldom know how to identify critical skills that lead to job success or failure; and, 2) they seldom know how to accurately evaluate candidates for these specific skills.

It takes a special vocabulary to quantify skills that differentiate one job to the next, or even skills within a job. A close examination shows critical job skills fall into a few basic clusters: organizing and managing; thinking and learning; getting things done through people; and attitudes, interests, and motivations (we’ll save physical elements for a later discussion).

Thinking and learning factors range from the simple, where facts are few and clear, to abstract situations where nothing is clearly defined. Likewise, organizing factors range from simple ABC time-management to complex critical path project management.

Interpersonal skills are almost always role-specific. They include persuasion, coaching, functioning within an interactive team, and so forth. Attitudes, interests, and motivations (AIMS) also vary with the job. AIMS make the difference whether the employee will use his or her skills.

If skills and AIMS are less than required, the employee will not have the necessary stuff that naturally leads to results. If they exceed requirements, the employee will probably get bored and lazy.

It does not take a rocket scientist to understand that high job performance ONLY occurs when the employee’s personal skill factors MATCH the job … AND, when the employee’s manager or organization do NOT mess it up.

I’ll provide more specifics in the next segment.

Want to see Part 1 of this series? Click here.

This article is part of a series called Classic TLNT.
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