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Is it Really John’s Fault?

There is a task in your workplace that needs to be done. Sally can do it, but John cannot.

Our automatic assumption is that John does not have what it takes to do the job. John is not competent, and if we ever want John to be able to do the job, we need to give him some training and instruction so he becomes competent.

It is easy to see that for someone to do that job, they have to be as good as Sally. So we spend what might be quite a lot of money and effort ‘fixing’ John so he can work effectively alongside Sally.

This might all be true, however, there is another possibility that is almost always overlooked. There is another possibility that is almost always a cheaper solution.

Sally is more experienced than John, and she knows the little shortcuts, the tricks to making that particular machine work, the ways to bypass the system when it gets in the way, who to call when something she needs is missing and how to deal with all those little things that conspire against success.

If those barriers against success were absent, perhaps John could do the task, and do it well. So actually, he is competent for this particular task, and it is the environment that surrounds the task that is not ‘competent’. It is the faulty environment around John that renders him incapable in the moment of doing the task, even though nominally he is competent.

So you have two options. You can train John with all the knowledge and skill that Sally has in order to overcome the problems in the environment that surrounds the task, or you can fix the environment.

Which would cost you less?

  • If you fix the environment, then others like John can also do the task.
  • If you fix the environment, then Sally won’t need to bend the rules in order to get the job done.
  • If you fix the environment, it is much easier to stay legal and compliant.
  • If you fix the environment, people new into role will reach proficiency much more quickly.

The moral of the story is, when there is a performance problem, do not automatically blame the performer. It might be the stage that you are asking them to perform on, that is faulty.

About the author:
Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and expert in workplace learning, especially informal learning, as well as management development and employee performance support. He is the author of “Informal Learning at Work: How to Boost Performance in Tough Times” and “Capability at Work: How to Solve the Performance Puzzle”. For further information please visit

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