Jacob Kaplan-Moss

Performance Is Contextual

Have you ever worked with someone who was great at their job until suddenly one day, seemingly out of the blue, their performance dropped off a cliff? Or how about someone who’s been really struggling, even to the point of being close to getting fired, and then they somehow turn it around? I certainly have, multiple times.

Managers often talk about performance as a static thing. We say that someone is a “high performer” or “low performer”, as if performance is a fixed attribute of their personality. This fixed mindset is a mistake.

Performance is contextual: how well you perform your job is deeply dependent on the conditions around you. This is obviously visible in small ways – miss a night of sleep and suddenly the job feels 80% harder – but we tend to view that as a short-term exception and not the application of a broader rule about what impacts job performance.

There are all sorts of things that can influence someone’s performance dramatically. Just a few examples:

  • Your colleagues and management chain. Working with and for people who you respect and get along with tends to improve performance; working with jerks or for incompetent management depresses performance substantially.
  • How the company is doing overall — its income, customer satisfaction, funding situation, profitability, etc. It’s very hard to do great work when you aren’t sure if layoffs are around the corner.
  • The company’s mission and your alignment to that mission. It’s much easier to perform well when you believe in what you’re doing!
  • The broader political context. I’ve found it harder to focus on work since the war in Gaza began; I’m guessing I’m not alone.
  • Mental and physical health. I haven’t actually done the math, but I’m confidant there’s a high correlation between my job performance and the number of miles I run each week.
  • The health of family and friends. Both in the sense of care requirements being very time consuming, but also that they’re a mental, physical, and emotional burden. There was a period early in the pandemic where we become very compassionate towards people balancing working from with caring for kids who could no longer go to school or day care. We’ve somehow mostly forgotten this compassion around care requirements, and that’s unfortunate.

This is by no means an exhaustive list; just some examples to help make the concept concrete. I’m sure you’re thinking of many more examples.

The major lessons I’d like you to take away from the idea that performance is contextual are:

  1. Try to avoid a fixed mindset about performance. Try not to talk about “low performers” and “high performers” as if its a fixed thing. Try to think about performance as an activity that waxes and wanes. Don’t write someone off who’s struggling; try to find out the cause. Don’t get complacent about people who are doing well; understand what’s facilitating their performance and try to help keep those structures in place.
  2. When someone isn’t doing well, keep an open mind about the causes and solutions. “Just try harder” is rarely effective, but changes to context – even subtle changes – can be huge. What can you change about their job that might facilitate better performance?

As a manager you do have to balance your responsibilities to the company with your responsibilities to the team. Being sensitive to contextual performance doesn’t mean that if someone’s having a rough time of it at home you have to let them skate at work forever. Remember it’s all interlinked, so if one person isn’t pulling their weight – even if it’s for totally understandable reasons – that becomes context that pulls down the performance of others on the team! Sometimes you have to make some hard choices, which can include letting someone go who isn’t doing a good job even when you know there are understandable reasons for it.

But it does mean that you shouldn’t flip the bozo bit on someone who’s not performing well! Understanding that performance is contextual means that you can try to change the context and find something that works. If someone has difficult care requirements at home, perhaps an alternate work schedule might help? I know one person who was really struggling at work until they split their day into three working blocks – before the kid gets up, while the kid’s at school, and after the kid goes to bed – and now is doing great. If physical fitness is correlated with someone’s performance, perhaps you could convince the company to start a wellness reimbursement program to pay for a fancy gym membership. If Project X is draining their will to live, perhaps you’d rather take them off it – even if it means delaying the project.

One way you can view the fundamental job of management is: good management seeks to create the conditions where people can do their best work. So maybe that’s the ultimate lesson here: if someone’s struggling, your first question shouldn’t be “what’s wrong with them?”, it should be “what’s wrong with the situation?”