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Diagnosing Performance Situations Through Critical Thinking

Dr. Lee Kang Yam

Chief Learning Curator | Flame Centre

In my performance management training, some managers will consult me on ways to handle poor performance by their staff. They would elaborate, “Customers are complaining. He does not respond to customers’ queries.” or “I am not happy with his sense of urgency.” I avoid the label ‘poor’ performance as ‘poor’ is an unspecific and judgmental word.

People managers should avoid jumping to conclusions and attaching a label to the performance prematurely. I prefer using the term performance ‘situation’ as it denotes anything positive or negative that impacts staff ability to deliver expected results.

Handling any performance situation requires critical thinking.

Managers need to identify and describe the situation as clearly as possible first before jumping to analysis or solutioning.

For example, I remember I received a complaint about me a few weeks into my first job. My job required me to process the training applications among other duties. These training applications came from various public service organisations, and sometimes, I received close to a hundred training applications daily. This was back in the days when application forms were faxed and processed manually. The supply of training places was limited, and there was a huge demand from public servants to upgrade their skills by attending our training programmes.

Nine weeks into my job, my supervisor received a complaint letter from a public servant who wanted to attend an IT-related training programme but was repeatedly rejected. The complaint letter was about me not prioritising his training applications to ensure he was on the training programme. The expectations for my job were to fill the training places and ensure customer satisfaction. I did fill the training places but did not satisfy this customer.

When my supervisor received the complaint letter, she did not show any unhappiness but proceeded to understand my situation. She asked a few simple questions, such as:

1. What happened?

2. Where did it happen?

3. When did it happen?

4. How did it happen?

Without answering her questions, I immediately replied, “Demand and supply. Our training programmes are always oversubscribed. I cannot give him a training place.” She was patient and replied that she did not ask me “why” and asked me not to jump into analysing the causes but answer her questions first.

I provided the answers to the first two questions, and when it came to question 3, I was puzzled by this question, ‘When did it happen?’ I replied that it happened when the customer complained about me. She clarified that she wanted to know when he sent the training application forms. As all incoming faxes had the date and time recorded, I could check on the information. Upon checking, I noticed he had faxed in a few training application forms seven and eight weeks ago, and the faxes were all on Monday mornings. So she asked me next, “How did you handle the applications?” I replied, “I put the application forms into my in-tray and processed the applications a few days later as I have other training matters to handle.” She noticed my in-tray and asked, ‘This in-tray, is this the only in-tray? How do you treat all incoming applications?” I replied, “I only have one in-tray, and I placed all incoming applications into it” That was when I realised I had used a ‘First In, Last Out’ system to handle all training applications. His application forms came in earlier and were consistently placed at the bottom of the pile of forms. As more application forms came in during the week, they were processed first, and his forms were never processed!

Through a critical thinking process, my supervisor was able to determine the cause of the performance situation quickly and helped me rectify the issue by using a ‘First In, First Out’ system.

I am curious, when people managers complained that their staff do not respond to emails or queries, do they have a First In, Last Out system when handling emails?

Learning this critical thinking process has helped me diagnose and resolve most performance issues objectively and effectively.

Hope the critical thinking questions can help you in your performance situations.

If you find this useful, check out our Performance Management tools and how we can help managers and organisations manage appraisals to align, inspire and empower high-performance.


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