The Real Secret to Performance Success

Those of you who know me have often heard me say that people who are successful, and who have great careers, accomplish this because they actually perform in their current positions and they can show the potential to perform at their next career level. It’s all about performance. And my consistent message is, “for superior performance to be achieved, and sustained over time, there needs to be a balanced match between an individual’s technical capabilities (education, technical skills and experience) and their non-technical (‘soft’) skills, to their specific work, manager, team and overall organizational culture”.

Since the presence of both technical and non-technical skills is essential to performance, over the years I have made a point of increasing my understanding of the influence of non-technical work personality on performance. To assist in this I have found it easier to first group the vast number of personality-based performance characteristics into these ’core’ soft skill categories:

  • cognitive capabilities and thinking preferences,
  • motivation,
  • concentration preferences,
  • productivity traits,
  • communication skills,
  • interpersonal skills, and
  • emotional intelligence.

After doing so, we can move beyond these core soft skill categories, to higher level capability evaluation and development activities pertaining to managerial, leadership and innovative performance.

But it is within this core category list that the real secret to performance success resides. Cognitive capability in fact should be given ‘special status’, because it is fundamentally important to a person’s ability to perform.

When there is a cognitive mismatch between an individual and the requirements of their specific role, NOTHING else matters - the person simply will not perform to expectations.

Cognitive capability ‘trumps’ all.

So what do I mean by cognitive capability?

For me, cognitive capability involves a person’s ability to organize and evaluate complex information (sometimes seemingly unrelated) in order to develop effective solutions to problems within a given time horizon. The farther into the future that a person has to contemplate, and plan for, the greater will be the complexity of the information involved, the strategies to be developed, the solutions to be formulated and the contingencies to be considered. And therefore higher levels of cognitive capability are required to be effective. It is also important to know that, as young adults, we all develop various levels of cognitive capability (but we do not all start at the same level), and that everyone’s capability will grow, at various rates, as they mature.

While a person can have both sound technical knowledge and notable strength in all of our core non-technical categories, if their cognitive capability is below that of what is required for their specific role, despite all good intentions, they will be overwhelmed, incapable of effectively solving problems and their performance will suffer. In some cases their response to this will be to do many of the things that typical sub-standard performers do; justify, hide, self-protect, blame, deflect accountability etc. etc. Since few people will willingly admit that they are incapable of performing their work, they will be little help in determining the reasons behind their substandard performance – better yet whether cognitive capability is the culprit. External evaluation will be required to determine if inadequate cognitive capability is the actual root cause of poor performance, so its evaluation must be included in the investigation of all possible causes when performance objectives are missed. Failure to properly ‘diagnose’, should cognitive inadequacy actually BE the root cause, will only result in putting a ‘band-aid’ on symptoms, and the performance issue will never be resolved.

In those less frequent instances where a person’s capability is above what is required in their role, they will typically be bored with their work and, depending on the influence of their other performance traits, may perform poorly because of such factors as; poor motivation, lack of interest, poor concentration and errors of omission – the list can be quite long. Those underwhelmed people who are career-oriented will become uncomfortable and more interested in moving on to a new challenge. And, if they are truly talented, they will be very attractive to your competition (and recruiters). Those who are not career-oriented will simply accept their situation, remain bored and ‘hang on’ until retirement (if allowed to). In either case, whether the person’s capability is above or below the capability requirements of their role, don’t expect to see significant positive performance. An accurate cognitive match is the desired condition.

Cognitive Matching and Organizational Performance

When we envision a typical organizational chart we can see a number of hierarchical levels (even in a ‘flat’ organization). The complexity of problems faced by individuals at each level will increase as you move up in the chart, as will the need for them to envision potential effective solutions to these problems over increasingly longer time horizons. For example, the organizational CEO has to consider the practical impact of their solutions to more highly complex problems, much farther into the future, and then plan, ensure resource availability, and implement more complex strategic and tactical initiatives as compared to the demands placed upon the person on the workshop floor. In other words, to perform to the demands of their particular role, the CEO will need a higher level of cognitive capability than the people below. And, due to their organization-wide influence, if they do not have the level of capability that is required to perform in their particular organization (based on size, type, industry etc.) the resultant negative impact will affect the organizations members and performance in numerous ways.

But this discussion is obviously not limited to only the CEO’s of the world - it applies to everybody. Even a capable CEO will fail when they surround themselves with poorly performing leaders, managers and staff who are cognitively mismatched to THEIR role requirements. And the cumulative effect of multi-level poor cognitive fit will be seen in substandard team, departmental and overall organizational performance. When any person, or group of people, do not have the cognitive ability to effectively solve the problems that are inhibiting them from meeting their performance objectives, not only are they personally failing, they will invariably have a negative impact on the performance of the people around them as well. We have all seen this.

Since multi-level performance is dependent on the ability to first determine the cognitive requirements of any specific role, and then to evaluate the relative cognitive ‘fit’ of an individual, it is essential to factor cognitive matching into:

  • hiring and selection activities,
  • internal promotions and succession planning,
  • training and development programs, and
  • talent retention / management.

Performance Success or Failure Will Depend on Your Ability to Understand and Evaluate Cognitive Capability and to Integrate This Into Your Performance Management Systems. Knowing this has served me well.

Cognitive Matching and Effective Hiring and Selection

How will you know if you have what you need if you don’t know what you need in the first place? Failure to fully identify the cognitive requirements of any specific position, prior to hiring to fill it, is a recipe for disaster, with the negative impact increasing exponentially as you move up the organizational chart. Since the lowest staff levels require the lowest levels of capability, cognitive matching is relatively easy – so the common neglect of cognitive evaluation and fit has not been as noticeable. But this is not the case with first level, mid and senior managers, where ineffective hiring and selection decisions, based on a lack of cognitive evaluation, results in ever so common poor managerial performance.

That said, when hiring for your lower ranks, should you hire a notable, cognitively superior individual, you might be wise to identify, challenge and devote some developmental funds towards them, as they can quite often turn out be a key component in your future organizational growth and development. I am always surprised at the lack of detailed employer evaluation for interns, co-op, new graduate and first level personnel, as a little more effort would be so helpful to ‘must keep’ decision making that contributes to positive organizational build. Those leaders who are committed to long-term organizational growth must cringe when they think that possible stars could be slipping through their systems because some of their hiring personnel think ‘these people are all the same’. 

That said, there is an even greater immediate cost when neglecting the cognitive evaluation of higher impact managerial and technical personnel. Doing so turns the hiring process essentially into ‘uneducated guesswork’, and the resultant poor performance that results from weak selection decision-making almost always has a negative organizational impact in a multitude of ways. I cringe when I hear the phrase ‘good people are hard to find’, which implies a willingness to accept those mediocre people who are more easily found. Good people aren’t that hard to find – you just need to know how to find (and evaluate) them.

At CAES, understanding the impact of cognitive capability is the foundation to much of our success (and our services) and is a key element in our competitive advantage. By working with our hiring clients to first determine the cognitive requirements of each position (at every level), we are then able to identify / find people who will actually perform to expectations, evaluate their capability (cognitive, technical, and non-technical) and provide input toward client selection decisions. The result of ensuring a multi-dimensional fit is that our clients end up hiring better performers, who sustain their performance over time, and who tend to stay for extended time periods. (This is what effective hiring / selection / recruitment / ‘talent acquisition’ is all about). And because we understand cognitive capability growth rates, and when a person will most likely be able to assume greater cognitive challenges, we can better respond to our client’s frequent requests to help them hire people who can perform in a specific role today, while also having the potential to perform at the next managerial level in the future (talent management / succession planning can be built into the hiring process).

Cognitive Matching and Promotions and Succession Planning

Obviously the same processes in are in play when considering internal promotions. It is important to ensure that any internal candidate is cognitively ready to move up today or, in the case of succession grooming, determine when they will be ready to move up in the future. It is not uncommon to see a person perform well at one level yet display mediocre performance, or outright fail, when promoted to the next level. This simply means that their capability had not grown to the extent that they could handle the increased demands of their new role, despite that fact that they had worked in the organization, had inside knowledge of the new position, and were possibly mentored and developed by internal mangers. Decision-makers, often fooled into thinking that they ‘already know the person’, often fail to fully evaluate the person’s current cognitive capabilities in comparison to those which are required in the new role. And then they are surprised at the subsequent poor performance outcomes.

When developing an organizational succession plan, failure to properly identify potential successors based on the evaluation of their capability to perform at the next level will result in the wrong people being targeted and groomed for promotion. If their cognitive capability does not, or will not, meet the demands of the next level role, within a suitable time frame, the identification process is a complete waste of time. And other, more appropriate, potential internal and external candidates may be overlooked and lost.

Cognitive Matching and Training and Development Programs

With respect to training and developmental initiatives, not understanding the importance of cognitive capability can, as well, translate into a waste of time and money. Training and development programs must always be focused on increasing performance related to a specific issue. But if any participant’s performance issues are actually rooted in an inadequate cognitive capability for their role, THIS becomes the critical issue that must first be addressed. Yes, we can identify a group need for say, motivation enhancement, team membership, better communication, increased innovative thinking, leadership development etc. etc. but, while intended to promote positive performance change, these sessions will be useless in practical application should the participant be overwhelmed cognitively. These overwhelmed people will only leave the developmental program more aware or informed, but they will still remain ill equipped to actually apply what has been learned. Just because they have a piece of paper (certificate, diploma, degree) does not mean that they can actually implement the change in order to more effectively do their work. This happens all the time - education does not guarantee application.

While, in most cases, it is not necessary for all participants in group programs to be at the same cognitive level, their performance issues must be due to some common cause other than cognitive inadequacy. Just because participants have similar roles or titles, does not mean that they are all cognitively capable, since some will be performing better than others. Because of this, it may be more effective to gravitate towards programs that are as individualized as possible, simply because these similar people may still have very different performance enhancing developmental needs. Once we have satisfied the cognitive requirements, as much as possible, at each level of our organizational chart, we will have built the ‘foundation’ via which other skill development initiatives can have a more effective impact.

Cognitive Matching and Talent Retention / Management

We have all heard that ‘people come and go based on the quality of management’, as well as the growing criticism that too many managers today are weak performers. (There is a looming talent retention crisis as a result). In some rare instances, poor managers can just be bad people. But in the great majority of cases, those ineffective managers, despite all good intentions, are simply incapable of meeting the cognitive requirements of their role (whether they know or admit it). Since their presence is obviously a product of inadequate hiring or poor promotion decisions – someone is failing to accurately assess their capability to do the work. All the more reason to ‘dig deeper’ in the evaluation process. It is not uncommon to see managers / senior personnel with glowing resumes / CV’s, filled with all sorts of wonderful performance numbers, who fail to pass a cognitive capability ‘test’ that would verify that they ‘have what it takes’ to have actually accomplished what they have claimed. Failure to learn from the mistakes made in these decisions, and to progress to stronger evaluative tools, will only allow more errors to be made – the system will not fix itself.

Returning to our organizational chart, we know that each hierarchical level needs to be cognitively superior to the level below it – hence adding value. Effective managers provide for the needs of their talented staff (challenging work directly related to their cognitive requirements, opportunities to grow and develop, mobility options, appropriate remuneration, work life balance, etc. etc.), while ineffective managers don’t. So, if you hire or promote a manager who has inadequate cognitive capability relative to their role, their resultant poor performance will be unattractive to high-performing talented staff who are looking for managerial value. Talented, career-oriented performers will not join your organization or, if they have, they will not stay.

And since a person’s cognitive ability grows over time, many people will ‘grow out of their role’ when their respective manager does not have the ability to provide new and more challenging projects / tasks that will keep them actively engaged. It is essential to realize that ‘non-valuable’, cognitively inferior, managers are often the cause of poor talent retention, poor departmental performance and stagnant organizational growth.

In Summary

In conclusion, I need to revise my opening statement to; “Those of you who know me have often heard me say that people who are successful, and who have great careers, accomplish this because they have the cognitive capability to actually perform in their current positions or their capability has grown to the extent that they have the potential to perform at their next career level. Once satisfied, for superior performance to be achieved, and sustained, they will then also need to match with their work, their manager, their team and the overall organizational culture on overall technical capability and all of the other soft skill requirements.

I feel that it is important to mention the need for caution regarding any rush to find adequate ‘off the shelf’ cognitive assessments. From my experience, the assessment process is complex and not easily administered or evaluated. I have tried to put my approach into a written question and answer format, but it just does not work. To be effective, formal, flexible, adaptive interviewing based on an understanding of the subject matter is the only method that I have found to deliver consistent cognitive evaluation results.