Updated: Apr 8, 2021
How to improve your performance or your team's performance.
Have you ever asked yourself, “Why didn’t I do as well as I hoped?” or “Why didn’t they do as well as I hoped?”
Whether for work or in school or even in a hobby, we all want to perform well. If you’re a leader, you want your team to do well. But what affects performance? Most people think it’s just ability. If you did well, you have high ability. If you did poorly, you have bad ability. But that’s necessarily true.
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One of the most useful things I learned from my leadership class in university is this performance formula:
Performance = Motivation X Ability X Guidance X Resources
Notice that these four factors are multiplicative, which means if any of them are 0, then your whole performance is 0. And if any of these factors are low, then greatly reduces the performance even when the other factors are high. To have high performance, we need all four factors to be high.
To explain motivation simply, we need to have a strong purpose or reason to do something. That reason needs to be personally meaningful to us. If your reason to do something is because “I have to do it”, then your motivation is low. If your reason is “I really want to do it, regardless of how difficult or how much work it is”, then your motivation is high.
Motivation can be improved fairly easily. The best way is to connect the task to something meaningful to you, such as being a good person, doing something you're passionate about, or helping people you care about. When we connect to a bigger purpose, we increase our motivation.
For example, I wanted to learn Chinese, but it was such a daunting task because the language is so different from English. But I thought about how I want to be able to communicate better with my parents and grandparents, and that gave me motivation to finally learn and persist in learning the language.
Ability is fairly self-explanatory. If we have the required abilities and skills to do the task, we’ll do a better job. If we lack the ability, then we will do poorly. The key thing here is to think about the necessary abilities needed for the task.
In the workplace, people often get promoted into managerial and leadership roles because of their ability to do their current job, not the manager job. That's a problem! For example, an account gets promoted to manage a team of accountants because he is good at accounting. But to perform well in the manager role, he needs leadership and people skills. So it's very important to be clear on the abilities and skills needed for the job.
To give another example, students often think that if they know all the knowledge for a test, they should do well. But if they lack test-taking skills, then they still end up doing poorly. To solve that problem, they can improve test taking skills like how to do multiple choice questions, how to manage your time on tests, and how to write short essays. To perform better in school, students should also improve their learning abilities, like how to read better, how to take notes, how to remember things better.
Improving ability takes the most time, which is why companies hire people largely based on their abilities. Although improving ability takes time, the investment is worth it if the task is something you will need to do over and over again in the future. That’s why effective people are always seeking to “sharpen the saw” and improve their abilities.
Guidance is about getting direction on how to do something correctly and effectively from an expert. If someone has no guidance or even wrong guidance, their performance on a task will be low. Having great guidance can greatly improve performance.
For example, I tried learning Chinese on my own using some books at the beginning. It was difficult and slow. Later, I found a Chinese teacher. My performance improved much faster with guidance from a teacher.
As a teacher myself, I always get my students to submit rough copies. That way, I can check if they followed the instructions correctly. If they worked hard but didn’t follow the instructions, then they wasted their motivation, ability, and resources going in the wrong direction.
In the workplace, if you assign your employee a task, check that they actually understand everything you want of them. If their understanding is vague, then they need to more guidance from you. Otherwise, they are very likely to do it wrong without even knowing that they’re doing it wrong. Again, that would be a waste of motivation, ability, and resources.
Guidance is fairly simple to increase. It’s all about having clear directions on what the end result should be.
Resources refer to having all the things you need to do the task effectively. Resources include things like time, energy, materials, tools, and environment.
For example, if I want to learn Chinese, I need to have the time and energy to study. I also need books and study materials. It was helpful when I visited China and got to practice in a real environment.
Teachers/coaches can be considered both resources and guidance. When a coach tells you how to do something, that’s giving you guidance. The fact that you can ask the coach questions and access their knowledge, that is a resource.
Resources like materials and tools are fairly easy to increase. For example, I simply bought some books to help me learn Chinese. I was also lucky to have found a good teacher. But other resources like time and energy might be difficult to increase because they are limited. For example, I was busy with work, so that limited the amount of time and energy I had to learn.
Example of Applying the Performance Formula
I’ve already mentioned that I work as a teacher. The teacher job is quite analogous to a manager’s job in the workplace. Managers want their employees to perform well; teachers want their students to perform well. Sometimes, teachers get upset and frustrated when their students don’t do well. Other times, teachers get depressed and blame themselves for not doing a good job.
Since I know about the performance formula, I always use it to reflect on if I have done the utmost of my ability to help my students.
For motivation, I often remind students to think about their duty to their parents and family, about how much their parents haven given them and all they ask for in return is to learn and study and be able to take care of themselves. I also try to make class content interesting and relevant to their lives.
For ability, I coach students on learning skills like note-taking, test-taking, reading, and memory. I even wrote an article specifically on how to be an effective student, which covers learning skills that I ask my students to read and practice at the beginning of my courses.
For guidance, I try to be very clear on exactly what I’m looking for in assignments. If they follow the instructions, they can get 100%; there’s no secret to getting a good grade in my courses. I also review their rough copies and tell them what to do to improve.
For resources, I provide all the lessons and materials they need to do well. They just need to have the time and energy to go through them.
If a student does not perform well, then I know it’s probably due to factors outside of my control, such as low motivation, low ability, or low time and energy.
The next time you reflect on why your performance or your team’s performance didn’t go as well as you expected, reflect using the four factors mentioned previously: motivation, ability, guidance, resources. Furthermore, at the beginning a of task or project, think about how you can increase each of these factors to improve performance.