Job Performance Defined

Author : Robert Bullock
Published: June 14, 2013

In the world of work, there are not many things that are as widely acknowledged yet largely misunderstood as the notion of job performance. It is such a large and nebulous concept that many of us consultants have our own ideas of what it is and what it looks like. This has also been an issue in the field of industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology, where job performance has undergone more than a few conceptualizations over the years.

In this article, I will provide a complete, empirically based definition of job performance. Because much of what we as consultants do is targeted at improving performance at some level, understanding the theoretical underpinnings of this construct should prove valuable, or at the very least provide some insight.

What is Job Performance?

Job performance has been defined as the overall expected value from employees’ behaviors carried out over the course of a set period of time (Motowidlo, Borman, & Schmidt, 1997). This definition, although fairly technical, includes specific ideas that are worth breaking down:

• Performance is a property of behavior, or, plainly stated, what people do at work

• An employee’s behavior adds expected value to the organization – that is, an employee’s behaviors may be distinguished as helping or hindering an organization, but the outcomes of employee behaviors are rarely measured so their value is merely expected

Performance can further be broken down into two distinct types:

• Task Performance - These are the actions that contribute to transforming raw materials to goods and services, the things that are typically included in job descriptions. Examples include selling clothes, drilling holes, or teaching a class.

• Contextual Performance - These are the behaviors that contribute to overall effectiveness through supporting the social and psychological climate of the workplace. Examples include cooperating with teammates, diffusing conflicts, and cleaning up the conference room (Borman & Motowidlo, 1993).

What about results?

As consultants, we show our value by having a positive impact on results at some level or another. However, you might have noticed that results are not included in the definition of performance. Results can be seen as the method through which employee behaviors actually contribute to organizational effectiveness. Because results are so closely tied in with organizational goals, it is appealing for many to place emphasis on results when considering or evaluating employee performance.

However, results are purposely not included in this definition for strong reasons:

Situational factors outside of the employee’s control may influence the likelihood of meeting results. For example, the lack of training and high-level support for an improved process may reduce the likelihood that an employee will follow it, or economic conditions may have an overriding impact on sales.

Evaluating performance based on employee behaviors rather than results allows us to gain a deeper understanding of employee traits and processes that contribute to organization effectiveness.

This approach allows us to apply psychological principles to properly manage employee performance - something that could not be done if results were the primary focus (e.g., using critical incidents to identify behaviors that are particularly effective or ineffective, then establishing performance evaluation criteria based on those behaviors).

Practical application

As a consultant, understanding what job performance is can help you in a variety of ways. By avoiding the use of results and focusing on the behaviors, you can have a positive impact by encouraging your clients to look at performance management in a number of ways:

• You can identify critical incidents, or detailed examples of behaviors that were associated with particularly strong or weak performance. When enough critical incidents have been collected, analyze and use them in training and recruiting. This will help you identify training needs and ask the right questions in interviews.

• Create a clear, correlative model for the client to use in recruitment, training, and employee evaluations by using strongly identifiable behaviors.

• Prove to your clients that you are a “systems thinker” who can thrive in complex environments by linking performance behavior with results.

References: Borman, W., & Motowidlo, S. (1993). Expanding the criterion domain to include elements of contextual performance. In N. Schmitt & W. Borman (Eds.), Personnel selection in organizations (pp. 71-98). San Fransisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Motowidlo, S., Borman, W., & Schmidt, N. (1997). A theory of individual differences in task and contextual performance. Human Performance, 10, 71-83.

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