Job Performance (what it is, what it’s not)

In the world of work, there are not many constructs that are as widely acknowledged yet largely misunderstood as the notion of job performance.  It is such a large and ambiguous concept that most of us, managers, employees, and specialists alike, have our own unique definitions 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.  We have been providing performance management services for decades; we know that performance is an important topic that deserves more attention than it gets, so we are contributing an entire article to its definition.  In this article, we will provide a complete, empirically based definition of job performance (and attempt to avoid dry, jargon-rich language often used in applied research!)

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 what people do at work
  • An employee’s behavior has expected value to the organization – that is, an employee’s behaviors may be distinguished in the extent to which they help or hinder the organization, and the outcomes of unique behaviors are rarely measured so their value is  expected

Performance can further be broken down into two distinct types:

  • Task Performance.  These are the actions that directly transform raw materials to goods and services – they are the things that are typically included in job descriptions 
    • Examples include selling clothes, drilling holes, teaching class in a school
  • Contextual Performance.  These are the behaviors that contribute to overall effectiveness through supporting the social and psychological climate where work is done 
    • Examples include:  cooperating with teammates, diffusing conflict, cleaning up the conference room (Borman & Motowidlo, 1993)

But what about results??

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 displaying a certain behavior (for example, lack of training and high-level support for an improved process may reduce the likelihood that an employee will follow it) and the results of that behavior (for example, economic conditions may have a stronger influence on sales than an employee’s behavior)
  • 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 also 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

Understanding what job performance is can help you in a variety of ways.  By avoiding the use of results and focusing on the behaviors of your employees, you can have a positive impact on performance management in your organization 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, they can be analyzed and used in:
    • Training (for example, to identify training needs or create realistic, job-relevant scenarios)
    • Selection (incidents can be used to identify behavioral-based interview questions and score them)
    • To learn more about the effectiveness of behavior-based interviews, read this blog.
  • By not focusing as much on the results, you are treating your employees more fairly and judging their performance through their actual work behaviors.  
  • Using identifiable behaviors when evaluating performance (and using your observations of their effective and ineffective behaviors during performance conversations) can increase future performance by providing employees with a clear mental model of their performance.  To learn about the factors that are necessary for feedback to lead to increased performance, read this blog.

Look ahead for future blogs in this series that will look at antecedents of performance and factors that influence performance. 



Other Articles Related to Job Performance

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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2 Responses to “Job Performance (what it is, what it’s not)”

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  2. Robert Bullock August 5, 2013 at 6:35 pm #

    Thanks for your comment Bernadine! We just added a “subscribe” feature so you can get our articles emailed to you as soon as they go live. Just look for the button on the right hand column of any blog.

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