Conflicting goals make room for performance failures

by Ron Ragain, Ph.D.

Most people do not set out to fail.  On the contrary, most of us regularly attempt to succeed; but at times we do fail none-the-less.  The role of a supervisor is to get results through the efforts of other people, so an important question for supervisors is, “Why does a specific performance failure occur?”  There are a lot of reasons - knowledge, skill, motivation, etc. - and key among them is something called “goal conflict”.  

We live in a complex work-world with multiple competing demands.  We must be safe, fast, cheap and valuable all at the same time.  It is humanly impossible to make all of these goals #1 at the same time, so we make cost-benefit tradeoffs and “choose” which objective is the most important at the time given the pressures of the environment/culture that we are in.  I may choose to “hurry” because of time pressure, but in so doing sacrifice safety and quality.  
As a supervisor I need to understand the drivers behind employees’ performance failure before I can adequately help them become successful.  What “tradeoffs” did the employee make that produced the failure?  Did his desire to “please” the supervisor outweigh his calculation of his own skill-level?  Did her perceived pressure to produce outweigh the thought to evaluate hazards associated with the task and take precautionary action?  
Unless we as supervisors take the time to evaluate the conflicting goals that drive employees’ performance, we will be less effective in reducing the opportunity for failure.