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Too many of today s workers do merely okay on the job.

But managers can turn these marginal performers in to high achievers.

Manageme nt Dialogues:Turning On the MarginalPerformer


ob is an employee

in the R&D laborafirm. He Fred,

tory of a large high-technology recruitment

was hired by the lab supervisor,

after a thorough pointment.

and selection proabout the ap-

cess. Both men were enthusiastic

Bob had excellent technical creden-

his new employee. The two men talked easily with each other. Fred quite specifically reminded Bob of his expectations and pledged his support. Bob expressed confidence in his ability to fulfill Fred s expectations, and he acknowledged the offer of support. But six months dramatically. Bob s typical later, things had changed For example, consider one of workdays. He arrived late for

tials, was glad to be hired by the lab, and really liked Fred. Fred was confident in Bob s abilities and sure that Bob was just the person the lab needed. He passed by Bob s work station during B&s first day on the job. Here s the way things started off:

work and looked at the clock, which read 855. Little late this morning, he thought to himself. Oh well, no big deal. Fred s not around anyway.Later in the day he noted that he had come up short again in his work. But not too bad, he said. This ought to be enough to keep Fred off my back. Finally, just before quitting time he considered getting a jump on the next day s schedule. But after thinking just a moment, he concluded, I ll do it tomorrow. Ah, why sweat it?

FYtd Hi, Bob. First full day on the job, I see? Bob: Yes, and I m ready to go to work. Fred Good. I just thought I d stop by first thing to say hi and remind you we re expecting good results. You ll be pretty much on your own here, so it will be your responsibility to stay on top of things. t be a problem. Bob: Well, that shouldn Fred I hope not. But if you hit any snags, don t be afraid to call me. Bob: All right. Fred Good enough, Bob. See you later. Everything seemed in order with this brief but positive exchange between a manager and

People like Bob show up in most work sites. Although they initially seem capable and highly motivated, they become marginal performers - workers who do just enough to get by. Many frustrated managers simply consider these people unfortunate employment mistakes that must be tolerated. By contrast, we believe managers can turn around many marginal



and thereby produce large producSuch highmanagement

tivity gains for their organization. each and every individual

gets the best from contributor. vignette to de-

Let s go back to the opening tionship

termine what went wrong in Fred and Bob s relaand what could have been done about perWhat could it. Why did Bob, a capable and motivated son, become a marginal performer?

Fred have done to turn the situation around so that Bob s high-performance potential would have been realized?
John R. Schermerhorn, JI: leaches
courses in management, behavior, and organization Ohio University, G. O Bleness organizational development at of

the College of Business Administration Professor of Management.




where he is the Charles Univerand

PERFORMANCE can be found


He has a Ph.D. from Northwestern sity and previously of the department and Administration of management at Southern

The answers ment framework

= Ability

in a managePerformance

served as chairperson

based on what we call the

x Effort. Central

associate dean of the College of Business Illinois of University-Carbondale, professor at the Chinese and as visiting University

individzlalperformance x Support


is the principle

to the that high levels of work of a

performance ganizational

result from the combination support, and individual signs indicate

Hong Kong. The author of Management

for Productivity(Wiley, 1989), senior Becoauthor of Managing Organizational havior (Wiley, 1988), and past chairperson
of the management opment division Management, education and develof of the Academy

person s job-related

abilities, various forms of orwork efthat all to

forts. The multiplication

three factors must exist for high performance mance will be compromised. High-performance

occur. Take any one or more away, and performanagement starts with the following implications of the individual performance equation. 1. Performance begins with ability. Individual abilities are the skills and other personal characteristics we use in a job. For someone to perform well, he or she must have the skills and abilities required to complete the work. If the person lacks the requisite baseline abilities, it will be very difficult for even extraordinary effort and support to produce high performance. Because ability is a prerequisite for performance, it is the first factor to consider when searching for explanations of marginal work. Initially, managers must determine whether employees have the skills and aptitudes necessary to succeed. The best way to ensure that they do is to develop selection procedures that

he is an active managewith a special His international in InHis re-

ment trainer and consultant productivity experience Venezuela, management management development. includes

interest in human resources strategies for assignments

donesia, Thailand,

Egypt, Tanzania, and cooperation, developand in

among other countries. and organization agreement, education

search on interorganizational ment, cross-cultural

has appeared

a number of scholarly journals.



match individual

talents and job de-

mands. In cases where employees lack essential skills, managers should use training and development replacing programs to help them acquire may also consider personnel abilities to achieve with job these skills. The manager or reassigning a better match of individual requirements. In addition, theory as Victor Vroom s expectancy points out, individuals of motivation

must believe in their abilities if they are to exhibit high performance. A person may have the right abilities expectation will achieve self-confidence abilities required pectations. 2. Performance reqtiires support. The second but frequently overlooked high-performance factor is support. and highly capable to maximize Even the most hard-working individuals will be unable if they do not perbut may fail to develop performance the
William L. Gardner is the Hearin-Hess Professor in Business Administration assistant professor of management University ganizational of Mississippi, where he orHe reand an teaches courses in management, and organization from Susquehanna University. missioned managers. industry development. University and at the

that by using these skills, he or she the desired levels. contribexjob is to help build

Thus part of a manager s

among the individual

behavior, research methods,

utors - to help them realize that they have the to meet high-performance

ceived a B.S. in business administration M.B.A. and D.B.A. from Florida State Gardner served as the reby the State of Florida to idenof educational coupled with hardware This experience search associate for a major grant comtify the key competencies his background

their performance

have the necessary support. In searching for the causes of marginal formance, dimensions of support.

in the wholesale

serves as a basis for his reefforts. His research work, impresmotivation, He has pubof Manageand Publeadership, education.

search and teaching sion management, and management

managers need to examine two major First, they must ask if

interests include managerial

they have done their part to create a physical work setting that supplies employees with broad opportunities to fully use their abilities. A supportive work environment provides appropriate technologies, tools, facilities, and equipment; offers adequate budgets; includes clearly defined task goals; gives autonomy without the burden of too much red tape and other performance obstacles; and pays a market-competitive base wage or salary. Deficiencies in these areas impose situational constraints that too often frustrate employees performance efforts. Second, managers must give proper attention to the social aspects of the work environment. Recent research into job stress, for example, suggests that social support is critical for sustainedhigh performance. Emotional support

lished articles in the Academy Review, Journal of Management, lic Productivity Review.

ment Journal, Academy of Management


r-from a person s supervisor and co-workers, as well as from non-job sources (i.e., spouses, family, and friends), can have long-term Indeed, positive effects on empathy can help a job performance. underutilization, biguity. A manager s responsibility thus includes providing every individual contributor with the maximum opportunity to perform at a high Path-goal theory suguse various manachievenecessary level. This advice echoes Robert House s pathgoal theory of leadership.
Thomas N. Martin is the Noddle Distinguished Professor of Management of the department of Nebraska and at chairperson of manage-

worker better handle

such work stresses as skill

high workloads, and role am-

gests that effective managers ment oriented,

agement styles - directive, supportive, and participative-as to ensure that employees they seek to accomplish good managers maximize available

ment at the University ment, organizational

Omaha. He teaches courses in managebehavior, organizafrom Iowa tion theory, and business and society. He received a B.S. in engineering State University, Clara University, an M.B.A. from Santa and a Ph.D. in manageof Iowa. He is of Management Review, of articles that have

have clear paths as their goals. That is, behaviors that of situational support

use leadership

the amount to others.

ment from the University author or coauthor appeared in the Academy

Performance involves effort. Effort is the final, and perhaps most commonly emphasized, individual performance factor. Here, effort refers a task. In other to the amount of energy (physical and/or men-

Journal, Academy of Management

Personnel Psychology, Personnel Administrator; Human Relations, and California Management Review.

tal) a person applies to perform hard.

words, it represents someone s willingness to work Effort is necessary to achieve high-performance results. Capable, well-supported, but uninspired employees are no more likely to succeed than are hard-working persons who lack ability and/or support. Yet unlike the other performance factors, which are subject to direct managerial control, the decision to exert or withhold one s effort rests solely with the individual tor. To understand contribuwhy employees sometimes de-

cide not to work as hard as possible, it is again useful to consider Vroom s expectancy theory of motivation. According to this perspective, the motivation to work is the product of expectancy, instrumentality, and valence: Expectancy is the individual s assessment of the likelihood that his or her work effort will lead to task performance; instrumenta&y is the individual s belief that a 50 given level of performance will lead to certain work outcomes; and valence is the value the per-

son attaches to these outcomes. to suffer. To avoid motivational

If the level of is likely


good, pretty

good followed

by I ve

any one of these factors is low, motivation are advised to make sure individual their performance

deficits, managers contributors

got to run. Fred passed up a perfect opportunity to recognize directly Bob s accomplishments. From an expectancy this oversight tation ready shown was probably theory perspective, had alhe to possialso was may could prove costly. Bobs expecquite high-he he could do the job when

see clear linkages between how hard they work, results, and their rewards.

BOB, THE MARGINAL PERFORMER Let s return begin ability, to apply support, equation. to the opening the individual vignette and -

wanted to. The valence he attached ble work outcomes, such as praise, probably have become no relationship receiving low because between

high. But Bob s instrumentality performing

he sensed little or well and recognition.

performance to exist. person,

All three elements

of the equation

the desired supervisory

and effort -appear competent

The positive reinforcement vation

he both desired and

Fred set the stage for Bobs high performance by (1) hiring a technically (2) indicating his ability sation his intention and (3) encouraging to provide support, Our first clues

needed was just not there. As a result, his motito work hard was reduced. could between while have gotten better if the in later Several lab dynamics had improved Things motivational interactions nately, weeks reports, mance. later

Bob to work hard and use

to good advantage.

Fred and Bob. Unfortureading the weekly problem,

as to what went wrong are found in a converthat took place after Bob had been on the job about a month. Fred happened to pass by Bob s area and noticed pendable whether mance Fred: Bob: Fred Bob was working hard. He thought to himself how fortunate Bob noticed he was to have a deand wondered his good perfor-

as we ll now see, they didn t.

Fred noticed a decline in Bobs perforThis was a serious so Fred

decided to chat with Bob right away. Bob had met high performance standards in the past and should still have been able to reach them. When Fred stopped by Bobs work station, they engaged Fred Bob: Fred in the following conversation.

go-getter like Bob in his department. Fred approaching Fred would mention from the past week. Hi, Bob. It sure is good weather, wouldn t you say? Yes, it sure is. I was just passing through the building on another matter. While I m here, I thought I d show you some new schedule changes. Oh yes, Darlene [the project manager] told me all about them. Say, how d we end up last week anyway? Pretty good, pretty good. If you have any questions about those schedule changes, just call the project manager. Well, I ve got to run. See you later, Bob. Bob obviously wanted



In this interaction Fred s praise. What

he got was a lukewarm

Hi, Bob, how s it going? Pretty good. Say, I wanted to check with you about your performance figures for the past couple of weeks. They ve been down a little, you know. Bob: Well, I got stuck on a couple of things that threw me off. But I think I m back on track now. Fred The only reason I m bringing it up is that you ve busted the charts in the past. I know you can do it when you put your mind to it. You re one of our top performers. I figured if you were off on the numbers there must be a reason. Bob: Well, I m sure my performance results will be back up this week. Fred Okay, good, Bob. Take care now.


Reviewing happy veloping

this interaction,

Fred thought he wasn t that atBut in this de-


At the very least, then, we can damage to his working of his rela-

it had been right to let Bob know with his performance. scheme,

expect that Fred had set the stage for potentially irreparable tionship really managerial gained with Bob. It is not clear what Fred as a result punitive posture.

we have an indication

the only time Bob got the desired personal social-learning essentially theorists

tention from Fred was when he did poorly. As will tell us, Bob was to in potential. Fred learning through reinforcement only when Bob turned

One thing is clear from the above episode. Fred was telling Bob that it was Bob s responsibility to find out what had gone wrong over the past couple of weeks, then take steps to correct it. Implicitly he was also attributing Bob s marFred ginal performance might be wrong-with made a common while overlooking marginal to one or more things that Bob! Unfortunately, mistake: He focused only on

work below his actual performance By giving attention marginal, was positively and neglecting tively reinforce pattern

rather than high, performance, reinforcing critical opportunities

the wrong behaviors to posi-

the right ones. As long as this Bob was likely to remain And, as we will see, a with this situation can ever


what the employee might have been doing wrong other possible causes for the performance.

a marginal performer. manager s frustrations more punitive performance

all too easily lead him or her to adopt approaches. A few weeks later Fred noted

that Bob s in the



still wasn t back up to standard.

While he was not the worst performer

lab, he surely could have been doing a lot better; Bob s past record was proof positive. ing even more concerned Bob s work Fred Bob: Fred area to discuss things Benow, Fred went to with him.

Take a look at the data in Exhibit 1. It summarizes how managers industries from the health responded care and banking to two ques-

tions: (1) What is the most frequent cause of poor performance by your employees? and (2) What is the most frequent cause of poor performance by yourself? The exhibit shows quite different patterns of responses: ployees performance sue, the managers deficiencies tended to attribute When emwere at isthe probeffort; deficien-

Bob, I want to talk to you. Hi, Fred, what s on your mind? Your lousy performance, that s what! Your output has been down again for the past two weeks. Look, Bob, I know you can hit the numbers, but you re just not putting out. I need someone in here who can get the job done. If it is not you, I ll get someone else. I hope I won t have to do that. Now let s get to it! Bob: [No response.]

lem to employees lack of ability and/or when the manager s own performance

cies were at issue, the problem was overwhelmingly viewed as a lack of outside support. But, we must ask, if managers need better support to achieve higher performance, doesn t the same hold true for their employees? Responses such as these are of no great surprise to those familiar with an area of management research known as attribution theory. When dealing with marginal performers like Bob, the theory predicts that managers like Fred are more likely to attribute any performance problems to some defi-


Theorists advise us that Fred s threats reveal a number of shortcomings. For example, behaviors targeted for punishment frequently receive positive reinforcement from another source-like peers and co-workers or even the supervisor s inadvertent actions. For another, managers who use punishment often come to be viewed negatively by the recipients of the

Exhibit 1 MARGINAL PERFORMANCE: ATTRIBUTIONS GIVEN Number of Responses to the Question: Most common cause of poor performance by your employees? 22
15 36

Number of Responses to the Question: Most common cause of poor Attribution

Lack Lack Lack of Ability of Support of Effort


by yourself?
2 66 6

Data are from healthcare and banking managers attending executive development seminars. One respondent did not report on his/her employees performance. Data were collected during two executive development seminars conducted by John R. Schermerhorn, Jr. for groups of healthcare managers and senior bank managers.

ciency within the individual -that of ability or lack of effort-rather

is, to a lack than to a

ogists call learned helplessness, may occur. This term refers to the tendency for people who are exposed to repeated punishment or failure to believe they do not possess the skills needed to succeed at their job. As a result they become passive in their work, and they tend to remain so even after situational changes occur that make success once again possible. A feeling that outcomes are beyond one s control, when in fact they are not, is the essence of learned helplessness. People become convinced that they are doomed to fail no matter what they do. As a consequence, employees who experience will usually continue learned helplessness to exhibit passive and mal-

deficiency in the work situation, like a lack of organizational or managerial support. Given that Bob was considered ity factor), reduced Fred probably technically assumed compethe abilthat Bob s tent when he was hired (thus satisfying performance resulted

from a lack of

motivation (a problem with the effort factor). Managers who view performance problems in such a manner will spend valuable time and money trying to find ways to increase their employees motivation directly and immedifail, the that Fred ately. When these initial efforts threatening and punitive approach

adaptive behavior long after changes (such as increased support or the arrival of a new manager) occur that make success possible. In Bob s case, learned helplessness from Fred s punitive resulting responses may cause Bob

used in the last episode is likely to follow. The fact that employees tend to attribute deficiencies to the internal in their performance support, causes their managers to external rather than favor furcauses, such as inadequate

ther complicates such situations. Bob, for example, is more likely to attribute his mediocre performance to a lack of supervisory recognition (an external cause) than to his own laziness (an internal

eventually to doubt the very abilities that led to his hiring and early successes. While learned helplessness is a worst-case scenario, it exemplifies the serious complications that can arise if managers fail to address marginal performance in a constructive way. The approach that we recommend marginal for dealing more positively with the performer is outlined below.

cause) -which

Fred seems to

assume is the case. When such gaps between attributions exist, employees like Bob typically resent the harsh and punitive responses their managers use. On the other hand, managers get increasingly frustrated because they cannot understand the employee s failure to perform. If this cycle of mismatched manager-employee attributions is allowed to continue, a worstcase scenario, in the form of what social psychol-




Many marginal performers, like Bob, are aware that they are not working up to their potential - and they know why. Given a posi-


tive environment

for dialogue,

they are often


willing and able to pinpoint personal and situational problems. share of the responsibility agerial

the causes-both Bob:

- of their performance for correcting around them. a mar-

They are also willing to assume their

Bob? I d like to talk with you a bit. This last production report shows you came in below standard again the past week. Yeah, I guess I was a bit behind. Fred brought the perforBob

Toward this end, we suggest the following manstrategy for turning ginal performer. Bring the performance gap to the marmanner for an ginal performer s attention. Ask in a nonthreatening


mance gap to Bobs attention. litely, but specifically readily Fred Bob: admitted

He did this po-

and face-to-face.

he had fallen behind.

explanation. Describe
?? ??

the implications

of the mar-

ginal performer s substandard work. Restate the original and still-desirable performance

objectives. necessary for performer to improve his or her

How do you feel about falling behind? Well, every time I get rolling I get hit with a schedule change. Sometimes they make sense, sometimes they don t. I m not always clear about what to do. I didn t want to say much. So I just tried to struggle through on my own. Fred gave Bob a putting

Offer the external support

the marginal performance.


In the above exchange,

chance to express his feelings without

Express confidence that the marginal performer will respond as expected. Agree on an appropriate time frame for jointly evaluating future performance in terms

him on the defensive. His next step was to try to identify the causes for Bobs substandard performance. threatening Fred To do this, Fred asked in a nonmanner for an explanation.

of the agreed-upon standards. Continue the process until


it succeeds

or the individual mismatch change.


to an employment only by a job Bob:

that can be reconciled

To illustrate how these steps can be followed, let s go back in time and pick up our vignette at the point where Fred first noticed that Bobs performance had dropped off. We ll assume he was prepared to adopt this more positive approach to the situation. As Fred s dialogue with Bob develops, interject some discussion we ll occasionally of his actions and

Fred Bob:

Bobs responses. This will help illustrate the steps and potential benefits of the recommended approach. Fred noticed that Bob s performance had been down for two weeks. After thinking it over, he realized that a capable person like Bob should have been consistently performing at a higher level -but he may have needed some help. Fred decided to walk to Bobs work station and talk to him about the matter at once.

Fred Bob:

There certainly have been a lot of schedule changes lately. Which ones are giving you the most problems? Mostly the changes with the Series J designs. I m just not clear on how to handle them. Yeah, they can be tricky. Have you asked anyone about them? Well, I realize the project manager has a lot on her mind. I just didn t want to bother her with my own problems. And . And? Uh . I just didn t want her to think I couldn t do the job.


This back-and-forth talk revealed Bobs belief that his performance suffered from unclear schedule changes, something beyond his control. Fred listened to the content of Bobs message and tried to understand his feelings. He also asked Bob to clarify certain points, such as the types of schedule changes he had the

most problems with and the reasons why he didn t ask for help. By remaining open-minded and avoiding common attribution errors, Fred learned a lot about the possible causes of Bobs poor performance. In fact, his active listening revealed that Bob feared he would look incompetent if he brought his problems with the design changes to the project manager s attention. Next, Fred provided Bob with some immediate support to reassure him that he was viewed as a capable and trustworthy worker. You shouldn t worry about it, Bob. She thinks highly of you. In fact, she said having you here is really going to make things a lot easier. And your part of the process really counts. The project manager needs your help to meet the deadlines. Bob: Well, I thought I could work it out, even if it took extra time. Fred I m sure you could, Bob, with your technical skills. But on this project time counts, and there are other people here to help you when needed. It s important that you understand completely what happens when you don t make your numbers because of confusion over the schedule changes. You slow down the next process, and that compounds the schedule changes down the line. Then our standards fall off, and we risk missing the target dates. So you see, your work directly affects the overall performance of the unit. Bob: Yes, I can see where it would. Fred After reassuring Bob that he was viewed as a highly capable and dependable worker, Fred made sure Bob understood the implications of his substandard work. Fred explained to Bob what happened when he slowed down on the job and stressed that his performance affected the entire project. This reminded Bob that others depended on his work being done well and on time so they could meet their performance objectives. It highlighted not only the significance of his job in general, but also

the significance of high performance

in that

job. From the perspective of House s path-goal theory, Fred clarified the path Bob needed to follow to achieve the desired goal of high performance. Fred But Fred wasn t finished yet.

Bob, before going further, let s review the performance objectives we established for you. They are . . (Fredand Bob review objectives.) re clear to me. Bob: Yes, Fred, they Fred: Well look, Bob, the next schedule change you get hit with, I want you to talk to the project manager or to me before it throws you behind. In the meantime, let s discuss ways of dealing with schedule changes for the Series J designs so that you know how to handle them. Then I m sure your performance will be back up to the standard level where it belongs. Okay? Bob: Okay. 1 11sure feel better when things are back on track. During this exchange Fred once again stated Bobs original and still-desired performance objectives. By doing this face-to-face, Fred reinforced the personal dimensions of further heightened Bobs to Fred. In addition, their relationship,

commitment to improve, and increased Bobs sense of accountability Fred offered the support necessary for Bob to improve his performance. He urged Bob to ask for help when he ran into problems, something Bob had previously considered an unwelcome intrusion on the project manager. He further suggested that the two of them discuss how to deal with the Series J schedule changes. This was an offer of immediate help for dealing with a perceived job constraint. Finally, Fred expressed confidence that Bob would respond as expected. Bob readily agreed that he would be able to do so. Following this discussion, Bob probably felt pretty good. Fred then made one more effort to ensure that Bob would get back on and stay on the high-performance track.


Fred? I feel real good about our conversation, Bob. You re a capable guy, and I know you ll be right back on top soon. Just to make sure things go okay, though, let s talk again after next week s reports are in. What do you think? Bob: 1 11look forward to it. It ll give us a chance to touch base. Fred established and standards formance. ensure assured would that productivity By adding an appropriate this control, time frame

or support, factors. situation, questions guidelines

or from some combination we suggest asking

of these of each

To deal with the uniqueness listed in Exhibit also highlight

the diagnostic

2. The following useful actions.

To Maximize


for evaluating the promised

Bob s future perhe helped in improvements

The manager s task is to achieve and maintain an appropriate match between performer the capaand the job on the naone of several through bilities of the marginal

would become a reality. Bob was in his ongogains and that productivity attention.

he or she is asked to do. Depending ture of the job and the person, options dividual s training; abilities

that Fred was interested receive

ing performance failure to obtain further meetings

may be selected. In some cases the incan be developed in other cases the job may have to

He also saw that a scheduling him-

the desired results would reBy formally with Bob, Fred assured If such improvements would ensure would

quire an explanation. self of opportunities improvements. marginal attention occur, the meetings performance before

be changed so it better fits the individual; and in still others, individuals may have to be replaced with more cases a job vacancy what it is-perhaps portunity capable workers. In all must be recognized for the manager s greatest oppotential

to recognize performance did not that Bob s

receive further the process

to build high-performance match

too much time had elapsed. the job was a true

into a system by hiring a person whose talents and interests the job s requirements. that repeated the ability exposure deficits are can lead to learned Earlier we noted helplessness. Because

At that point Fred could continue with Bob or, if he believed mismatch, native solution.

work with Bob to develop an alterThus, the stage seemed set once

to failure and punishment

again for Bob to become the high performer everyone expected him to be.

more imagined than real, however, individuals suffering from learned helplessness will need help in refocusing their concerns toward other performance factors. Take, for example, manager performers who who the case of a newly appointed inherits a team of marginal supervisor. had received



little or no support To restore

from their their feelings

Our continuing


offers managers



a starting point for developing personal and situation-specific strategies for dealing with marginal performers. Of course the exact nature of the marginal performance will vary from one person to the next. Our example has dealt with only one type- the capable individual whose work efforts have declined over time. From the individual performance equation, however, we know that marginal performance can arise from a lack of ability, effort,

of competence, the manager must first help them understand that any past performance problems were not due to a lack of ability. This is the first step of a turnaround strategy.

To Maximize


The manager s task here is to (1) help marginal performers secure the resources they need

Exhibit 2

QUESTIONS MANAGERS CAN ASK WHEN DEALINGWITH A MARGINAL PERFORMER Questions to Ask About Ability Has the individual performed at a higher level in the past? Is the performance deficiency total, or is it confined to particular tasks? How well do the individual s capabilities match the job s selection criteria? Has the individual been properly trained for current task requirements?
Questions to Ask About Support

Have clear and challenging task goals been set? Are other employees having difficulty with the same tasks? Is the job properly designed to achieve a best fit with the individual s capabilities? Do any policies and/or procedures inhibit task performance? Is the manager providing adequate feedback? Is the individual being fairly compensated? Is the work environment comfortable? Is the manager providing sufficient empathy and emotional support? Are the individual s co-workers providing sufficient emotional support? Has the manager actually encouraged high performance? Questions to Ask About Effort Does the individual lack enthusiasm for work in general? For the assigned tasks in particular? Are individuals with similar abilities performing at higher levels? Has the individual been properly recognized for past accomplishments? Are rewards and incentives provided on a performance-contingent basis? Is the individual aware of possible rewards and incentives? Does the individual have an appropriate role model?

to achieve high levels of job performance, and (2) help remove any and all obstacles that inhibit high performance. Success with this factor sometimes requires a dramatic change in the way managers view their responsibilities.



of an effort

to alleviate perform-

learned helplessness.

Once marginal

ers are convinced through attributional training that they do have the ability required to perform, they must be further persuaded that they will receive the support required to excel. The manager external their task duce ster support should engage marginal that identify needed performers in dialogues the types of

Rather than simply being the person who directs and controls the work of others, an effective manager accomplishments. always acts to facilitate their This involves doing much

to help them apply

more than telling employees what to do and then following-up on them. The truly effective manager creates a supportive work environment by clarifying performance expectations, changing job designs, providing immediate feedback, fostering better interpersonal relations, and eliminating unnecessary rules, procedures, and other job constraints. Consider again the case of the newly appointed supervisor. Support is an especially

abilities to best advantage. Ideally initial assignments will then be created to prosuccessful experiences that further bolemployees newfound self-confidence.

To Maximize


Basic principles of motivation and positive reinforcement should be applied whenever


managers whenever standard.

deal with marginal performer





make sure they take full ad-

the marginal

should be made aware falls below also be told how

his or her performance He or she should

vantage of the improved internal motivation that may be derived when ability and support factors are addressed.

substandard performance adversely impacts other workers, subunits, and the organization as a whole. Immediate all above-standard should be avoided. tic role model, marginal performers positive reinforcement and Marginal challenges represent the potential a potential, working actions performers present significant with gains on this to to their managersbut they also Punishment help A VAST POOL OF RESOURCES should follow performance improvements

achievements. a supervisor become

By serving as an enthusiascan further dealing high achievers. with strategies to cormust be ac-

a vast pool of human resources to offer major productivity To capitalize must performers managers with marginal be committed

For the new supervisor group of marginal performers, rect ability and support

to their organizations.


to identify accomequa-

companied by assurances that high performance will lead to desired outcomes. The most powerful experiences means of persuasion followed are successful by positive reand other to provide desired reclearly

the causes of their problems to move them toward The individual plishments.

and take positive greater performance

tion can provide managers with the insight they need to tap the true potential of the marginal performer. Specifically, it directs a manager s attention toward three major factors that influence individual performance - the often neglected support factor as well as the more commonly recognized ability and effort factors. Guided by this action framework, managers can take advantage of every interaction and every conversation with marginal performers to pursue their turnaround In the final analysis, performance the foundations management strategies. for high-

inforcement - praise, recognition, valued rewards. It is also helpful positive role models who obtain wards through skill utilization plishmen t . Finally, it is important

and task accom-

to note that mana-

gers motivational attempts gain leverage from ability and support efforts. The key is what
psychologists call the effectance motive, a nat-

ural motivation that occurs from feelings of selfefficacy. When people feel competent in their work, the argument goes, they can be expected in turn, comes to work harder at it. Competence,

rest with the mana-

from ability and the feeling that one s skills and aptitudes are equal to the tasks at hand. Competence also comes from support and the feeling that one s work environment helps, rather than hinders, task accomplishment. It is said that the very best motivation is that which comes from within. Thus, managers can gain additional motivational impact by investing in ability and support factors. To the extent that greater perceived ability and support enhance one s sense of competence, internal motivation is a likely consequence. Rather than concentrating only on motivational strategies designed to encourage more work effort externally,

gers themselves. To achieve the desired results, managers must:



that marginal performers of majorproductivity



gains for

organizations. At the very least, they must be considered just as important as any other human resource within the organization.


the need to implement


tive turnaroundstrategies gins/performers.

for dealing with mar-

Systematic and well-considered attention, rather than outright neglect and even punishment, is the order of the day-every day of a manager s workweek. 9 Be ready to accept at leastpartialresponhas be-


sibility for the fact that a subordinate

come a marginalperfomet:

Many workers learn

Luthans, A Social Learning Approach Management: (Organizational Dynamics, Autumn tion theory is explained E. Wood s book chapter

to Behavioral 1984). Attribuperspective Model of in

to be marginal performers from the way they are treated in the workplace-they don t start out to be that way. Bob, for one, sure didn t.

Radical Behaviorists Mellowing Out in a managerial An Attribution

by Terrence R. Mitchell, Stephen G. Green, and Robert Leadership and the Poor Performing Barry Staw and Larry L. Cummings, Subordinate

ACKNOWLEDGMENT The case setting for this article was developed from a vignette presented ration s instructional ginal Performer ner s accompanying in Wilson Learning Corpovideo Dealing with the Mar-

Editors, Research free of unby Lawrence

in OrganizationalBehavior (JAI Press, 1981). The importance of supportive work environments necessary job constraints is documented H. Peters, Edward J. O Connor, sequences,

and Joe R. Eulberg in Kendreth

(Building Leadership S.&l/r, New instructor s guide. The initial four

in their chapter Situational Constraints: Sources, Conand Future Considerations M. Rowland and Gerald R. Ferris, Editors, Research andHuman in Personnel Resources Management, Vol. Jr., 3 (JAI Press, 1985). For more on the support factor, see Thomas N. Martin, John R. Schermerhorn, of a Supportive Work Environment (JAI Press, 1990). The notion that organizational properties and J. leadership behaviors can inadvertently ing helplessness Martinko was first presented L. Gardner An Alternative and William induce leamby Mark Explanation in their article and Lars Larson s chapter Motivational Consequences in Carole Ames and Martin E Maehr, Advances in MotivationResearch

York: Wiley, 1986) and examined in William L. Garddialogues reported here are loosely adapted from the video. We are indebted to Wilson Learning Corporation and John Wiley & Sons for allowing us to build upon this case framework.


Learned Helplessness: for Performance The individual merhorn, performance equation and its

Deficits (Academy ofManagement

Review, April 1982). This theme is further developed in a follow-up article by these authors, The Leader/ Member Attribution Process (Academy of Management Review, April 1987). The effectance motive is described in Robert W. White s Motivation For an explanation Reconsidered: The Concept of see September 1959). Competence (PsychologicaLReview, of its managerial significance, Jay W. Lorsch and John J. Morse s Organizations and Their Members (Harper & Row, 1974). Andrew Grove explains the concept of managerial Output Management (Random leverage in High 1983) House, rationale are explained in Chapter 9 of John R. ScherJr. s book Management for Productivity, for the approach are found in the exoffered by Victor Vroom E. Lawler, III in (Irwin, 1968). in MelResearch: Third Edition (John Wiley & Sons, 1989). Theoretical foundations pectancy theory perspective Lyman W. Porter and

in Work and Motivation (John Wiley, 1964) and by Edward Managerial AttitudesandPerformance The elements of the equation vin Blumberg a review of the scholarly literature Missing Opportunity

are also consistent with presented

and Charles D. Pringle s article The in Organizational

Some Implications for a Theory of Work Performance (Academy ofManagementReview, October 1982). Finally, the emphasis on support echoes the perspective presented in Robert J. House s article A Path-Goal (Administrative Sciimplications
lf you wish to make photocopies or obtain


Theory of Leader Effectiveness

of this or other articles

please refer

in O~ca~~zarm~~r reprint

ence Quarter/r, September 1971). For discussions of the managerial

to the special



on page 80.

c&social-learning theory, see Robert Kreitner and Fred