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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.


Symptoms should lead to solutions, November 18, 2007, 2D.

When automobiles have performance problems, they typically end up at repair shops for help.   Part of the mechanic’s job is to listen to the vehicle owner’s description of the things wrong with the automobile in order to figure out how to fix the problem.  Likewise, when a sick patient visits a doctor for help, the doctor will ask the patient to describe the symptoms that he or she is experiencing.  Doctors also typically ask additional questions to the patient to help pinpoint the source of the problem.  Both mechanics and doctors seek to fully diagnose and understand their patients’ problems before they develop appropriate solutions.  Only when problems are clearly defined can solutions to remedy the problems be designed.

An automobile experiencing brake problems does not need a new radiator and one experiencing problems with overheating probably does not need new brakes.  Likewise, a patient experiencing fever and congestion does not need a solution remedy for an ingrown toenail.   Solutions must be designed to treat the root problems and ailments.

When workers experience performance problems at work, it is often the manager who must diagnose and develop remedies to those problems.  If employee performance is suffering, it is a symptom of a motivation problem, an ability problem, or a combination of the two.   For employees to successfully accomplish their work, they must “want to” and be “able to” perform. 

Motivation theory gives explanation for why people want to do things.  Receipt of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards, goal attainment, avoidance of punishment, fulfillment of needs, and maintenance of perceptions of equity and fairness are some of the ways that employee motivation has been conceptualized and studied.  Ability problems stem from inadequate or improper experience and training or a lack of organizational resources (e.g., physical, human, financial, or technological) and other types of organizational support (e.g., priorities, politics, permissions, etc.).  Without motivation and ability, performance will not occur.

Managers must accurately determine whether performance problems arise from issues of motivation or ability.  If the true reason for poor performance is an employee’s restricted access to timely and necessary information, it makes no sense to try to remedy performance with the use of rewards or punishments.  Likewise, when employee motivation is the problem, it would be wasteful to throw additional financial or human resources at the problem.  The solution must fit the true problem.

Mechanics and doctors diagnose problems and then design solutions to remedy them.  They actively listen to their customers and patients and ask probing questions to accurately pinpoint the causes of the problems.  Mechanics and doctors also know their subjects extremely well.  Through training, education, and apprenticeships, they develop expertise in how their subjects work and understand exactly how to repair and bring them back to health. 

Managers and organizational leaders should actively communicate and interact with their people to understand and foresee performance problems.  They should also invest considerable time and effort studying how organizations function and operate.  Only then can performance problems be identified and solved most effectively.


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2006, 2007, 2008  Coleman Patterson, All Rights Reserved