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  • Writer's pictureRuss Powell

If you pit a good performer against a bad system, the system will win every time

Updated: Dec 7, 2022

I was at a conference about performance improvement not long ago. In several of the workshops I attended, we talked about a model of behavioral influence that I find useful in my day-to-day work and I thought I’d provide a pointer to it.

I often coach leaders on how to develop training programs and tools that support training (e.g., job-aids, games, eLearning modules, videos, etc.). But, as we all know, training is expensive—sometimes HUGELY expensive—and behind virtually every request for training is a larger human performance issue. Many of my clients have found this model useful for understanding and troubleshooting these human performance issues. It helps us think systemically about how we influence behavior, and find solutions that are more effective than training—things managers and organizations can do (and often must do), in addition to training, in order to bring about desired performance.

Behind almost every request for training is a larger human performance issue.

The model comes from the work of Thomas Gilbert (he dubbed it the Behavioral Engineering Model, or BEM), and it has been updated by several people, including somewhat recently Carl Binder (the Six Boxes and Performance Thinking models) and Roger Chevalier (the Updated BEM).

The Six Boxes

The model has six components.

The first three are factors from the work environment (i.e., the organization has a great deal of control over these) and the second three are individual factors (i.e., they are dependent on and related to the person).

The environmental (or organizational) factors include information, resources, and incentives. The individual (or personal) factors are knowledge/skills, capacity, and motives.

What do these mean?

In order for your organization to get the performance it wants from its workers it must provide (i.e., managers must ensure/confirm) the following for the workers:


(1) Information – Clear expectations and feedback around the performer’s roles and responsibilities.

(2) Resources – The materials, tools, and time required to do the job. This includes clearly defined processes and procedures.

(3) Incentives – Both financial and non-financial incentives; enough compensation to take the money-issue off the table, and a positive work environment.


(4) Knowledge/Skills – You must have performers with the necessary knowledge, skills and experience to perform the job. And you must have them in the right positions. (This is of course the domain of training.)

(5) Capacity – You must have (hired) workers who have the capacity to learn and do what is required.

(6) Motives – You must have (hired) workers whose motives are aligned with the work you want them to do and with the work environment.

Roger Chevalier produced a useful summary table of these factors.

Also, I’d like to point you to a diagram, Leveraging the Solution, from Chevalier's article that suggests that the two most important factors for leveraging results are information and resources. Note that of these six factors knowledge and skills development (the domain of training and the point closest to the fulcrum) provides the least leverage.

leveraging the solution

What Does this Mean for You?

When you start thinking that you’ve got a training issue, it's usually wise consider questions of this nature first:

  • Have I (or have my managers) been clear regarding my expectations for my workers?

  • Are my/our processes clearly delineated?

  • Do I/we have reasonably good job-aids in place?

  • How well does the environment my employees work in support what I’d like to teach them? And, if necessary, what can I do to change that?

And What's the Upshot?

While training professionals may design and develop great training programs for you, your training dollars will go farther and your performance improvement interventions will be far more effective if you confirm supports of this nature are are in place: clear expectations; relevant and frequent feedback; required materials, tools and time; clearly defined processes and procedures; etc.

As Geary Rummler and Alan Brache put it:

Over the long haul, even strong people can’t compensate for a weak process. Sure, some occasional success may come from team or individual heroics. But if you pit a good performer against a bad system, the system will win almost every time.

Come join us for our next Leadership and the Middle Path workshop.


Sometimes leaders need extra help along the way—athletes, musicians and military professionals know this—some dedicated, professional attention to assist us in crossing a

threshold, working through a transition, changing a habit, or developing a new skill. Contact

Russ today to discuss your coaching needs. He offers developmental-, performance- and


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