How to Think About Performance

Posted on 22 September 2020

This post was written by:

Carmine Coyote - who has written 293 posts on Slow Leadership.

Carmine Coyote is the founder and editor of Slow Leadership, with a career that stretches from early employment as an economist, through periods in government service, academia and several multinational companies, to retiring as CEO of a US consulting company and partner in a large business services firm. Carmine now lives in Arizona, but is British for all that.

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19 Comments For This Post

  1. Bryan Eye says:

    I love it! Anything “visual” sure catches my eye. And the message is powerful, too. How much is squandered because of those two green restriction points, dysfunctional values and outworn habits? Thanks for this motivating graphic, Carmine.

  2. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Bryan Eye: Thanks, Bryan. I’m glad you like it. Keep reading, my friend.

  3. ScottG says:

    Love the visual!

  4. Carmine Coyote says:

    @ScottG: Thanks, Scott. I’m glad you liked it. Keep reading, my friend.

  5. ScottG says:

    I’d like to see more visuals like that. I had copied the graph and am printing it out as a reminder to myself. It is my belief that visuals have a higher impact than just words or numbers. That is why charts and graphs are used during meetings to drive the point across!

  6. Bay Jordan says:

    I think this is a brilliant portrayal of what constitutes action, and I particularly love the depiction of the constrictions, which are the things that - unless one is a professional sportsperson - invariably never get considered; either by the individual or the coach/manager assessing the action. It is said that too much attention is given to fixing weaknesses rather than building strengths and I think this approach would certainly help redress that imbalance.

    There may, however, be other constriction that could be added, e.g:

    a) Environment. By this I am including all the external physical factors which might impact actions in any particular situation. In a business this might be the systems, on the athletics field it might be wind resistance.
    b) Situation. Another catch-all category this would include the internal factors which would shape the outcome. This might be anything from fatigue to general apathy as a result of doing the action for the nth million time, or, for an Olympic athlete, nerves.

    Of course, this means that there could be “positive constrictions” or enhancers. e.g. The systems in the business or the support given by one’s team.

    If I may dare, however, I would suggest changing the top box from “performance” to “outcome” or “result”. It may seem like a semantic distinction, but it actually runs deeper than that for performance is actually a measurement and generally needs to be assessed against expectations or goals, or even against potential.

    Thus to complete the diagram and make it even more useful for evaluating performance, there are likely other boxes that could to be added to depict the goal setting and the factors that affect these and how they are determined. This would allow a proper evaluation that considers everything. I cannot think of any specific examples just now, but I am sure others will. The tie in with all the nehancers and constrictors is particular important here, because it completes the circle and is what would make it such a worthwhile tool.

    I really do think this is a brilliant effort that will make a valuable springboard to properly evaluating performance.

  7. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Bay Jordan: Thanks, Bay. Great comment.

    I use ‘performance’ for the top box to keep the focus on the individual. The outcome or result could well be heavily—even overwhelmingly—influenced by chance of the actions or failures of others.

    That’s why I am so skeptical of most ‘performance management’ systems in use today: they assume that outcomes can fairly be used to judge people, whereas the reality is that people are only responsible for what they do—their inputs—not the outcomes that ensue.

    Keep reading, my friend.

  8. Norman Dragt says:

    I find the model for what creates performance great, very insightful and insight creating.

    I do think however that the model is much more complex. For example someone’s competence influences the way he uses his values, but also where his preferences lie. One who is not competent in mathematics will not look for numeric constraints or relations within his field of attention. One who lacks some form of creative thinking, will not find innovative ways of working with his field of attention.
    But this relation is not one way. So one who has the competency to use math, will be more inclined to use this competence and be attentive of problems that make it possible to use this competency. The use will strengthen this competence. And through strengthening his competence in math he will be able to focus his attention even more and prefer using this competence.

    Although values have some influence, it depends on the kind of values we are talking about. For example most people have a strong value for survival. If this value gets stressed, most other values will be suppressed, to make survival possible. Some values will even be trampled on if one finds that his competence allows him to make decisions for and about the lives of others. A general or a commander in chief is a great example of this situation. Most western constitutions for example have the value that every human is created equal. But when we think we need war to secure the survival of our nation, suddenly women and children are more equal than men. And the commander in chief decides, on the basis of his position and assumed competency, that most men are of no importance and can and should be used to achieve and secure victory.

    Choices are not only influenced by values, but also by experience, by competency and by attention preferences. If I have no preference for a certain choice, I will not choose it. I will even find unknown competencies that enable me to avoid a certain choice. Look for example at people who smoke, and express a wish to stop. Their shown choice however is not to stop, their performance is to go on smoking. So some choices are not even conscious, as you might expect with choices.

    Strengths are off course not only influenced by preferences, and competencies, but also by values. For example someone who is a proficient murderer, will be disvalued in peace time, but highly valued in war. So the situation also defines which strengths are important and useful. A wisdom some American Indian tribes understood better than the Europeans, by appointing war chiefs and peace chiefs.

    And I could go on for the complexity of this model.

    However to end with dysfunctional values and outworn habits are directly dependent on someone’s competence. And then especially the competence to have an honest look at oneself, in combination with a little known value that a human is a valuable human because he is human.

  9. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Norman Dragt: Real life is always far more complex than any model, Norman. In the end, everything is influenced by everything else.

    You have to decide what to leave out, or your model becomes too complex itself for anyone to understand.

    Keep reading, my friend.

  10. John Carlson says:

    Left out anxiety, depression, compulsions, etc. Medical issues

  11. Carmine Coyote says:

    @John Carlson: Indeed so, John. But what I was aiming to illustrate are the normal ‘drivers’ of performance, not all the things that can go wrong. Keep reading, my friend.

  12. Bay Jordan says:


    Your response, “That’s why I am so skeptical of most ‘performance management’ systems in use today: they assume that outcomes can fairly be used to judge people, whereas the reality is that people are only responsible for what they do—their inputs—not the outcomes that ensue” certainly warrants further discussion in its own right.

    I certainly concede you have a point, but surely you can only judge input by the quality and quantity of the outcome, with some comparison of what is expected. Otherwise there is nothing to encourage improvement. That would be rather like giving a small child (or even a monkey) a paintbrush and paint and leaving them to “create” to their heart’s content. Plenty of input, but nothing whatsoever to reshape or improve the outcome, and no motivation to do so.

  13. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Bay Jordan: Performance management should be more about what people do—the input from them—rather than what happens as a result. It’s simply a matter of holding people responsible for what they can actually control—themselves and their own actions—not what they can’t control—the final outcome.

    To take your analogy of the child with the paintbrush: you can praise the child for effort and growing skill (which is precisely what good parents do) and encourage him or her to learn to do better (good parents do this too) whatever the resulting painting looks like. But if instead you follow the view of many of today’s Hamburger Managers and say “winning is all that matters,” those same parents would be encouraged to ignore or criticize their child’s efforts if they didn’t result immediately in winning a major art prize.

    What’s wrong is not using outcomes as part—but only part—of the basis for estimating input, it’s our stupid, macho urge to turn everything into a ‘winner takes all’ competition.

    Keep reading, my friend.

  14. Bay Jordan says:

    Agreed! Your diagram makes the point brilliantly, and both the diagram and the other responses point to the complexity of the task. But it is even more complicated because ultimately the outcome also has to be considered. It provides the yardstick by which the value of input and its merit is measured; and provides the continuum of learning that those exemplary parents you describe build. It is thus very much a part.

    I am not sure about the “stupid macho urge to turn everything into a winner takes all competition.” I think it is more a “stupidly cowardly urge to take the competition out of everything and create an everyone is a winner attitude.” This would be typified by the parents claiming the work as a masterpiece and praising the child’s incredible talent, without doing anything more to help them develop it. You just have to watch the television talent contests to see that at work - talentless people, who cannot hold a note, abusing judges because their parents have told them they are fantastic and deserve to be megastars!

  15. Norman Dragt says:

    @Carmine, you are right to point out, that a too complex model is of no use. But to simplify a complex system as performance to 8 factors, that only have linear relations with performance is as bewildering as making the model too complex.

    @Bay, if the outcome is all that counts or all that should be taken into consideration, the question to me becomes: when do I start considering the outcome as prove for the performance? Is that when a child is still learning to hold his brush? Or is that when a child has painted his first masterpiece, comparable to Leonardo or Rembrandt? And a second question that comes up is: Why should everybody who holds a brush perform equal to a Van Gogh or a Kandinsky?

    The problem to me however is, that many different performances can have seemingly similar outcomes. And only an expert can see the differences between outcomes and have an idea of what elements might have contributed most.

    If your goal is to improve performance, looking at the outcome is a starting point. But the relation between performance and outcome will only be clear to an expert. And even an expert will only be able to help a performer better his performance seeing and/or listening to the performance. So even an expert can not help better a performance by looking at the outcome.

    So the outcome can never be your goal if you wish to help someone improve.

    If however all you want is to judge the outcome, then do not bother about the performance.

  16. Bay Jordan says:


    I think if you read closely you will find that we are all in violent agreement! We are in accord that one needs to look at both the input and the output. Carmine is making the point that one needs to put more emphasis on the input than the output, which is a very valid point, while I am saying that one cannot look only at the input as the outcome provides yardstick by which input can be improved.

  17. Norman Dragt says:

    I agree with you that the outcome can be used as a yardstick. The yardstick however has two flaws. First it can become a stick to hit with, if you find that the performance is not improving in the direction of the yardstick. Second it can become a fence pole, that hinders the performance to develop beyond the outcome of the yardstick or in its own direction.
    So if you mean to say that the outcome is there only as a means to an end, the development of performance I agree.
    The next point however then becomes: How do I prevent the yardstick from becoming the stick or the fence? That in many cases takes a lot of love and understanding, which in most situations where we look at performance is in high demand, but low availability.

    But that off course is a completely different discussion, but not less interesting.

  18. David D says:

    I think the overall thrust of Carmine’s point is obscured by the simple analogy to a child painting. In today’s business environment, an incredible amount of factors determine any business’ or business person’s “outcome.” Focussing heavily on an outcome as a means for measuring performance is both under and over inclusive. Since you can only control your own actions, your outcomes for any decisions or actions will depend upon numerous factors that you have nothing to do with, making the outcome a poor predictor of your actual performance. The problem is that the business evironment is too complicated for such a simplistic measuring tool to be accurate for measuring performance: some people will hit it big, despite their performance, and some people will not hit is big, despite their performance.

    A better analogy, in my mind, would be gambling. A gambler has a choice of whether to play in a casino and, once he decides to play, he has a choice of games. Is he a good gambler if he comes out of a casino with a lot of money? You can’t tell from the result. He might just be lucky. He also might be a very skilled card counter, poker player, or sports bettor (those are, at least theoretically, beatable games). Conversely, if he looses $10k, is he a bad gambler? Again, you cannot tell. He may be very skilled and just have a bad run of luck. Or, he may be very unskilled in either game selection or execution of a proper strategy on a beatable game. Comparing the gambler’s pockets before he enters and after he enters will not actually tell you very much.

  19. Carmine Coyote says:

    @David D: I see your point, David. I chose the analogy with the child because my emphasis was on judging individual performance in situations where people imagine they can do that almost entirely from looking at the result. Gambling is a better analogy for the process as a whole, but, since the element of luck is more obvious, people are less likely to assume that you can judge the ability of a gambler purely from how much he or she wins.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment and input. I appreciate it. Keep reading, my friend.

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