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Get to the heart of it...

Have you ever taken a pill to relieve a symptom? A headache tablet, an analgesic for muscle pain, a decongestant for a head cold, an antacid for reflux... when we take these pills, we know we are not addressing the cause, just the symptom.

When we take these pills, we know we are not addressing the cause, just the symptom.

Often we take a pill because we want immediate relief from the symptom and don't want to wait while the root cause is fixed and eventually stops the symptom. No doubt you have read the warning on all of these over-the-counter medications that reminds us that "if symptoms persist..."

Often in workplaces, we try the same quick-fix approach of managing employee performance or behavioural issues; rather than taking the time to truly understand the root cause and addressing that. Instead, we give the employee "a talking to", tell them to take the afternoon off, give them some more training, or tell them they are not getting a pay-rise this year; rather than taking the time to to truly understand what may be causing the issue. For business owners and leaders, we are often concerned that the issue could be us, or something we have caused, and we don't want to have to face it or deal with it, so we simply ignore it.

Pretending an issue will go away on it's own is, of course, foolhardy; unresolved ailments have a tendency to fester and worsen, with eventual grave outcomes.

"if only we had been able to diagnose it earlier..."
if only we had been able to diagnose it earlier...

So addressing employee issues should be timely and appropriate, always looking to get to the heart of the matter; remembering to adopt a no-blame approach, as the real issue is likely to be systems, processes, lack of training or clarity of expectations.

For those who have had exposure to incident investigations, or process improvement methodologies, you will have heard of the root cause analysis; a process for determining the real issue.

One of the most common techniques is the "5 Whys" where, by repeatedly asking why something has arisen, can lead you to finding the root cause of the issue. The keys to effectively using this process is to focus on "what" and "how", rather than "who". It is also important to consider all the possible causes for each why, validate with information and evidence, so as to best choose which path to follow.

For example, your employee failed to meet a deadline to provide a report. Your immediate thought is that as the employee is sometimes late arriving to work, a missed report deadline is consistent with other behaviours, so it is likely their fault. However, you try to keep an open mind, and you ask to meet with them to discuss what occurred.

You start by asking "why were you unable to get the report completed on time?" They advise that they did not have the correct data to be able to complete the report. You ask "why did you not have the correct data?" they respond that they were waiting on another person to provide them with the data. You ask "why did that other person not provide the data you were waiting on?" They say they "don't know - they followed up a couple of times in email and via phone, but couldn't get a response" At this point you may need to consider - who is the person the employee was relying on for information, what is their relationship to the employee (e.g. more senior), are they impacted by their own workload? By moving the 5 Why process to another component in the process, further drilling down can then determine the root cause. In the end, the issue may not sit with the employee, as they do not have the influence to effect the change, and instead, you may simply have a discussion with them about the importance of early flagging of issues that will prevent them from being able to meet the requirements of their role.

In this example, it is a performance issue; but what if it is a behavioural issue? These can be a little more difficult to manage, as when it is an individual's behaviour that is in question, it can be challenging to maintain the "what" and "how", rather than making it about the "who".

For example, Employee A gets angry with Employee B, the altercation escalates to the use of abusive language and a threat of physical harm by Employee A before they storm off the premises for a walk around the block. Obviously, abusive and threatening behaviour is unacceptable; but what we want to know is what caused it? If we understand the root cause, we can know whether this outburst was an aberration, or whether ongoing behavioural issues can be expected; what prompted it and what needs to change in the workplace to eliminate or mitigate this from occurring again.

It is important to keep an open mind, avoid blame, and try to keep to the facts.

In all of these types of investigations, it is important to keep an open mind, avoid blame, and try to keep to the facts.

Potential causes of poor employee performance or conduct can include:

  1. Lack of clarity - their job role, or a specific task may not have been made clear

  2. Expectations - are the leader's and the employee's expectations about the outcomes aligned?

  3. Has the employee been provided the right tools, equipment or information to deliver the desired outcome? If not what are the obstacles? Can some workarounds be agreed upon?

  4. Has the employee been properly trained? Did the training consider their learning style?

  5. Does the employee need additional support to meet the expectations, if so what support is required?

  6. Are there challenges that the employee is facing inside or outside of the workplace that are impacting their performance or behaviour. Can these be addressed?

So, remembering the implications of not addressing the symptoms; next time you see poor performance or conduct from an employee; rather than guessing or assuming what might be the issue, start by asking the employee, and conduct a root cause analysis to get to the nub of the matter.


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