Hiring managers (and HR departments) expend enormous effort finding people with the right skills to fill open positions. But, skills are only half the equation for success.

Many years ago, psychologist Kurt Lewin reduced the mysteries of human behavior to this simple statement:

B = ƒ(p,e)

Behavior is a function of the Person and the Environment

Of course, it’s not really that simple. But I still find this notation useful, because it reminds me that the skills and abilities of the person aren’t the only factors that contribute performance.

Much of the time, organizations focus on the Person part of the equation. That’s important, because our work requires intelligent people with a wide range of functional skills, technical and domain knowledge, and appropriate interpersonal skills. Most managers work hard to hire the right people.

But that’s only half the equation.

Organizational factors, corporate culture, policies, and the direct work environment influence performance, too. The good news is that you can influence the environment for your group in ways that increase performance.

Creating an Environment for Success

B=f(P,E). Behavior--including job performance--is a function of the person and their environment.

Let’s assume that you’ve hired bright, capable people who have the appropriate skills and qualities for the job. They have the technical skills the job demands, they know the domain, and they’re familiar with the product. Yet the work isn’t going as well as you think it should. Maybe it’s the environment, not the person. Look at these areas to see if you can improve the environment for success.


People need to know what the priorities are. Managers don’t (and can’t) make all the decisions about how work is done. Establish clear priorities so that the people closest to the work can make good decisions. Communicate a clear mission and ensure that each person understands his top-three priorities. People perform better when they understand the mission of the group and what’s most important.


People can’t do their best without the right tools for the job. But hardware and tools aren’t the only resources people need. They need time, access to expertise, and training. No one I know can manufacture time, but setting clear priorities and keeping the workload reasonable reduce the sense of overwhelming demands. When budgets are tight, find inexpensive ways to feed the need for training and expertise. Offer to buy books for a lunchtime study group and support access to content websites and other free sources of information.


People want challenging work. Make work assignments based on interests. Better yet, create a pull system. Include criteria so that people cross-train on skills and scut work doesn’t fall disproportionately to a subset of the team.


Everyone desires respect. Yet, I still hear managers assert that people work best when they’re a little afraid. I don’t buy that. Show respect by keeping promises, communicating openly, and listening to other people’s ideas. Don’t take phone calls and pages or check email during meetings, especially one-on-one meetings.

People want recognition and appreciation. I’m not talking rewards here, monetary or otherwise. Humans crave genuine acknowledgement for their contributions at work—both concrete accomplishments and the intangible ways they contribute to the spirit and success of the group. Let people know that you notice and appreciate them every week. I don’t think saying “thank you” or “good job” is good enough. I like to address the person directly, like this: “Don, I appreciate you for shipping that data update on time. It makes a big difference to our clients.”

Reduce Environmental Roadblocks that Stifle Performance

Suppose you’ve done all of these things (and more) to establish an environment for success. Your work is not done.

Corporate culture and norms are part of the environment. So are policies, procedures, measures, and reward systems. Examine the organizational environment to see if there are other obstacles that keep people from doing their best.

Perverse Incentives

Are there factors that actually punish people for doing a good job? I once worked with a support group that was having a crisis in customer satisfaction. Support agents were expected to meet certain targets for the length of calls. That worked fine with simple problems. However, when a tough problem came along, the target caused a big problem. The measure punished people who stayed on the phone long past the allotted time to solve a customer’s problem. These folks were doing their jobs well. But, an environmental factor– poorly designed measure–was in the way.

Time-Consuming Requirements of Questionable Benefit

One organization I know of requires bi-weekly budget reporting and forecasting. It takes up to seven work days to assemble all the bits of information needed to create a report. The procedure is difficult and frustrating. The time people spend every month on budgets means they aren’t doing other valuable work. In another group, each team member is required to provide written feedback to every other team member every quarter. It wasn’t so bad when there were five in the group, but now that there are twenty … well, you can do the math.

Pile on enough environmental roadblocks and people become frustrated and cynical. And frustrated, cynical people are less likely to do a good job.

Individual managers can’t always change measurement systems, policies, and procedures. Insulate your group where you can and put the rest in context.

Remember that an individual’s skills and abilities aren’t the only factors in performance. Managers need to attend to both the person and the environment when assessing performance. Don’t wait until the next performance evaluation season rolls around. Evaluate the work environment now. Does the management infrastructure enable high performance? Are you working to remove or reduce the obstacles that are hampering performance? What else can you do to create an environment for success?

This article first appeared on stickminds.com. Updated 2020.

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