Performance Improvement Interventions Aren't Always Successful

Did you ever wonder why some employees don't do as well as others at work? Have you been frustrated with your employees' job performance? Do you want to help your employees make improvements at work but don't know where to begin?

If you consistently feel defeated by your efforts to enhance your employees' job productivity or quality of work, you are not alone. Like most other matters involving significant behavior change, the process of assisting employees in adopting new work habits or procedures often results in frustration and discouragement.

Historically, the approach for addressing less-than-desired job performance has been to identify areas of development (i.e., knowledge, skills, abilities, and traits that are lacking) and then to implement learning strategies.

The typical process entails evaluation of employee strengths and development needs, training in required areas, and analysis of outcomes. Although the traditional plan of attack for improving job performance often yields positive results, sometimes it misses the mark in promoting meaningful, permanent change.

Why do conventional methods for enhancing job performance sometimes fall short of meeting objectives? What else could managers do to help their employees perform better on the job?

Simplistic Premises

Most people tend to think that if something is not working properly, all they need to do is to identify the broken part and make the repair. The "fixing-the-broken-part" approach for improving job performance seems to make intuitive sense.

But when it comes to complex, biological organisms, this way of thinking has some drawbacks. Fixing a car or appliance is one thing, but "fixing" a human being is something else altogether.

Traditional premises for changing work behavior may possibly be too simplistic. When attempting to improve the job performance of employees, wouldn't we get better results if we also considered concealed factors that underlie ineffectiveness on the job?

Root Cause of Job Performance Problems

Dr. Daniel Amen, a clinical neuroscientist who uses brain-imaging technology, believes that many struggles in life stem from certain parts of the brain that are not functioning properly.

In his book, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, Dr. Amen claims that people don't always make the best choices or behave appropriately when particular areas of the brain are either overactive or underactive. His research and clinical practice suggest that certain overstimulated or understimulated parts of the brain are responsible for difficulties and inadequacies in our everyday lives.

It stands to reason that work-related problems also spring from dysfunctional parts of our brain. Doesn't it make sense to go to the root cause of our struggles and try to "heal" the ares of our brain that are causing the problems?

Making the Black Box Transparent

For centuries, the human brain essentially operated as a "black box," which is a system or device viewed solely in terms of input and output because its internal workings are unknown.

Brain-imaging technology called SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography), which measures cerebral blood flow and patterns of metabolic activity, has surely but slowly made the inner components of the human brain available for inspection. This sophisticated tool is gradually shedding revolutionary light on behavioral tendencies, such as anxiety, depression, distractibility, and violence.

In other words, the human brain is on the verge of becoming a "transparent box." Instead of human problems being viewed exclusively as psychological in origin, such issues are now being examined through a new lens that provides evidence of brain patterns that correlate with particular kinds of behavior.

SPECT is used to point the way to more effective treatment of parts of the brain that may be causing medical problems. Can't this technology also help us to understand brain-based issues in the workplace?

Brain Dysfunctions Affect Job Performance

Although Dr. Amen's research has focused primarily on addressing abnormal behavior and medical problems, the accumulated evidence regarding brain functioning can also be brought to bear on improving employee job performance.

Research indicates that people's brains do not always operate at optimum levels and that chronic dysfunction in different areas of the brain create various kinds of problems, which might ultimately rear their ugly heads in the workplace.

Everyone appears to be affected in some way at particular times by negative brain patterns. The observable outcomes of brain dysfunctions, however, vary significantly across individuals.

Mild "brain glitches" that occur from time to time may not have any discernible effects on an employee's job performance. But job effectiveness issues for some employees cannot be overlooked whenever a brain dysfunction becomes chronic or severe.

Job-Related Areas of the Brain

Certain parts of the brain have been found to affect people's lives physically, socially, cognitively, emotionally, and psychologically. Given what we already know about how the brain works, an employee's job performance is likely to be affected in the ways indicated below whenever these areas of the brain are not functioning properly.

Brain Area #1: Deep Limbic System

Primary Functions

  • Determines emotional state of mind
  • Regulates motivation and drive

Job Performance Problems if Brain Dysfunction Exists

  • Poor co-worker relations
  • Teamwork issues
  • Low productivity
  • Absenteeism and tardiness

Brain Area #2: Basal Ganglia

Primary Functions

Job Performance Problems if Brain Dysfunction Exists

  • Inability to make decisions
  • Inability to act under stress
  • Absenteeism due to sickness

Brain Area #3: Prefrontal Cortex

Primary Functions

  • Supervises critical thinking
  • Governs time management
  • Governs planning and organization
  • Governs judgment
  • Controls problem solving
  • Translates emotions and feelings

Job Performance Problems if Brain Dysfunction Exists

  • Low productivity
  • Poor quality of work
  • Poor judgment
  • Poor decision making skills
  • Poor planning skills
  • Inability to complete projects
  • Poor co-worker relations

Brain Area #4: Cingulate Gyrus

Primary Functions

  • Regulates cognitive flexibility
  • Regulates adaptability
  • Governs future-oriented thinking
  • Promotes interpersonal cooperation

Job Performance Problems if Brain Dysfunction Exists

  • Inability to change or adapt
  • Poor co-worker relations
  • Inability to establish goals
  • Lack of cooperation

Brain Area #5: Temporal Lobes

Primary Functions

  • Controls emotional stability
  • Enables socialization
  • Enables visual and auditory learning
  • Regulates memory

Job Performance Problems if Brain Dysfunction Exists

  • Aggressiveness
  • Inability to relate to others
  • Inability to learn
  • Poor quality of work

Exactly what do each of these areas of the brain have to do with our everyday lives and what role do they play in the workplace?

Deep Limbic System: Emotions and Motivation

The deep limbic system, which is the emotional center of the brain, determines a person's overall emotional state of mind. It does this in the following three ways:

  • First, it "emotionally colors" external events in an individual's life by acting as a filter through which events are interpreted.
  • Second, it "emotionally tags" external events as being important, which makes similar events in the future either attractive or unappealing.
  • Third, it stores "highly charged" emotional memories, which in turn affect emotional coloring and emotional tagging.

When the deep limbic system is not functioning at optimum levels, people usually feel sad, hopeless, helpless, and sometimes suicidal. In addition, a dysfunctional deep limbic system often results in pessimism, negativity, moodiness, anger, and irritability.

It's no wonder that job performance tends to be negatively affected whenever this part of the brain is overactive. Studies have shown that there is an intimate connection between the deep limbic system and the prefrontal cortex, which regulates rational thinking, problem solving, and decision making. When the deep limbic system gets "heated up," the prefrontal cortex shuts down and emotions are likely to take over.

The deep limbic system also regulates motivation and drive. Overactivity in this part of the brain usually translates into low energy, feelings of dissatisfaction and boredom, and a reduced interest in completing tasks. If someone is chronically depressed, it may mean that the deep limbic system isn't doing its job helping the individual get up in the morning and encouraging the person to keep going throughout the day.

Basal Ganglia: Anxiety

One of the primary functions of the basal ganglia, which are large structures near the center of the brain, is to regulate the body's level of anxiety. If the basal ganglia are overactive, an individual will probably experience heightened anxiety, tension, and fear. On the other hand, underactive basal ganglia are typically associated with low energy and motivation.

People suffering from overstimulated basal ganglia are likely to be pessimistic, to worry excessively, and to be nervous most of the time. These individuals may also tend to have panic attacks, headaches, and muscle tension, which may contribute to employee tardiness and absenteeism.

Another important function of the basal ganglia is to integrate feelings, thoughts, and movement (e.g., you jump when you're excited). When the basal ganglia are overactive, individuals are likely to feel overwhelmed by stressful situations and to "freeze" cognitively or behaviorally. People with dysfunctional basal ganglia, therefore, tend to perform poorly when under stress especially because they find it difficult to make decisions or to take action.

Prefrontal Cortex: Time Management, Planning, and Critical Thinking

Being the most evolved part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex is considered the "executive control center" because it monitors, manages, and directs all behavior. This area of the brain is responsible for goal-directed and socially responsible behaviors.

Primary functions of the prefrontal cortex are supervising and monitoring critical thinking; governing time management, planning, organization, and judgment; and controlling problem solving. It also controls attention span and regulates impulse control. Finally, this part of the brain makes it possible to feel and express emotions and to empathize with others.

Individuals whose prefrontal cortex is not functioning effectively tend to have difficulties establishing clear goals, planning and managing their time, and completing projects on schedule. In addition, they are likely to use poor judgment and to be poor decision makers.

A telltale sign of a dysfunctional prefrontal cortex is a short attention span, especially in routine situations. People whose prefrontal cortex is overactive may tend to have problems maintaining focus and are likely to be impulsive and easily distracted. These individuals, who are often viewed by others as hyperactive and restless, usually lack perseverance and do not pay attention to details.

Since the prefrontal cortex translates the workings of the limbic system into understandable feelings and words, when this part of the brain is dysfunctional, individuals struggle when expressing their feelings and demonstrating empathy for others. Moreover, people whose prefrontal cortex is not working properly typically exhibit social anxiety and often talk either too much or too little in group situations.

Cingulate Gyrus: Worry and Obsessiveness

The cingulate gyrus allows people to shift their attention from one idea or task to the next. This area of the brain essentially regulates "cognitive flexibility," which is the ability to adapt to changing circumstances and to deal successfully with new problems. In addition, the cingulate gyrus enables people to see options in their lives and to engage in future-oriented thinking.

When the cingulate gyrus is not working properly, the most obvious symptom is "getting stuck," which involves compulsions (i.e., repetitive behavior) or obsessions (i.e., recurring thoughts). People with a dysfunctional cingulate gyrus typically demonstrate ineffective behavioral or thought patterns when they are under stress. In addition, these individuals may also suffer from obsessive-compulsive afflictions, such as hypochondria, compulsive shopping, pathological gambling, and eating disorders.

Another prominent indicator of a dysfunctional cingulate gyrus is the inability to "roll with the ups and downs of daily life." This tendency is expressed in terms of "cognitive rigidity" and "behavioral rigidity."

People who are rigid cognitively tend to worry excessively, dislike any kind of change, engage in autocratic thinking, hold grudges for long periods of time, and easily get upset when presented with new problems or changes in their lives. Individuals who are rigid behaviorally have difficulty seeing options that are available in situations and changing the way they do things.

Finally, people who are uncooperative or excessively argumentative may have an overactive cingulate gyrus. Such individuals may become oppositional, hostile, or defiant in stressful situations.

Temporal Lobes: Emotional Stability, Socialization, and Memory

The temporal lobes, which are found behind the eyes and underneath the temples, control emotional stability. The temporal lobes also enable visual and auditory learning and regulate intermediate-term and long-term memory.

The left and right temporal lobes play an integral role in socialization. The dominant temporal lobe (usually the left side) controls the retrieval of spoken and written words and converts them into meaningful information. The non-dominant temporal lobe (usually the right side) processes facial expressions and vocal intonations.

Individuals whose temporal lobes are not working properly may be viewed by others as emotionally unstable, "moody," and irritable. Such individuals may demonstrate aggressive or violent behavior unexpectedly, may frequently misinterpret comments as being negative, and may exhibit mild paranoia. Their emotions and behavior tend to be fluctuating, inconsistent, or unpredictable.

If the temporal lobes are dysfunctional, people typically have difficulties understanding what they read or have problems communicating with others. These individuals often cannot find the correct words to speak, resulting in unclear communication. Moreover, dysfunction in this part of the brain makes it difficult for people to develop social skills because they are unable to understand facial expressions, vocal intonations, and social cues.

Other symptoms of dysfunctional temporal lobes are visual learning problems, auditory learning problems, memory problems, and forgetfulness.

Human Resource Management Implications

Overwhelming evidence indicates that brain patterns are correlated with behavioral tendencies. Many of the problems we experience in our personal and social lives appear to be intimately related to how well our brain is working at any given moment.

Dr. Amen's assertions regarding brain dysfunction have definite implications for human resource management. Since the brain plays a central role in people's work lives, it makes sense to consider its functioning when making employment, training, and performance management decisions about employees.

But you might ask, "How do you even determine if negative brain patterns are affecting the job performance of an employee without conducting a costly brain scan?" Certainly it's not feasible to perform a SPECT brain scan whenever the effectiveness of an employee is being questioned.

Optimizing Brain Patterns

Instead of relying on expensive and inaccessible medical technology, one can examine the "symptoms" of brain dysfunction and arrive at some reasonable conclusions regarding the fundamental causes of poor job performance. Although this approach may not be ideal, it makes common sense and may provide some answers to questions that typically go unanswered.

An evaluation device, called the "Self-Improvement Questionnaire," (SIQ) has been developed to help supervisors and managers address ineffective performance in the workplace. This instrument, which is based on Dr. Amen's extensive research and clinical experience, measures the degree to which an individual may be experiencing problems in the five major areas of the brain.

The basic assumption underlying the design of the Self-Improvement Questionnaire is that a symptoms-based evaluation can be highly instrumental in identifying issues that may be responsible for employee inadequacies on the job.

The higher the SIQ score for a particular part of the brain, the more likely an employee is exhibiting symptoms associated with dysfunction in that part. Higher scores indicate a greater probability that a given area of the brain may not be functioning properly.

Individuals who complete the Self-Improvement Questionnaire are provided suggestions for "healing" parts of the brain that may be creating emotional, psychological, or cognitive problems. The purpose of these "brain-based prescriptions" is to help individuals become more effective in the workplace by optimizing particular brain patterns.

Author's Bio: 

Barry Farrell is an organizational psychologist who has provided management consulting for over 35 years. Visit GreatBizTools to try some free BizTools and to register for a free 15-day trial of WebAssess, an online testing system.