by Anne F. Marrelli, CPT, PhD
his sixth article in the Performance Technologist’s Toolbox series focuses on the critical incident method of data collection. Critical incidents are narrative descriptions of important events that occur on the job and how employees behave in those situations. Critical incidents document the work context, the specific situation that arose, the persons involved, each person’s actions, and the results. The incidents may be confined to a particular topic or may cover the breadth of work experience. John Flanagan pioneered the critical incident technique during World War II as a means of collecting information about the training needs of pilots. Interviewees were asked to describe key successful and unsuccessful events that had occurred on the job (Hoge, Tondora, & Marrelli, 2005; Rothwell & Kazanas, 1992). For example, below is an actual critical incident that was captured for an employee relations case in a medium-sized organization.
Jack leads a team of 40 consultants in a private sector firm that provides management consulting services. Linda, one of the consultants, had been performing poorly for about a year, but both Jack and her direct manager, Larry, were reluctant to address the issue because on the few occasions they had tried to do so in the past, Linda had become very upset. Linda, in fact, had asked Jack if she could be assigned to a new manager. He assigned her to Amy, a senior consultant who was respected for her managerial abilities. Amy initiated biweekly meetings with Linda to monitor her progress and provide coaching and feedback. She also worked with Linda to create and implement a performance improvement plan. When the time came for Linda’s annual performance evaluation, Amy prepared a thorough and candid evaluation, including both Linda’s successes and performance improvement needs. She reviewed the evaluation with Jack, who approved it. As was the practice in the firm, Amy then orally presented the evaluation to a review team of 10 senior managers. As she was making the presentation, Jack interrupted her and stated that the evaluation was not accurate. Amy began to explain that he had approved the evaluation and that she had secured agreement from Linda’s primary project manager for the rating she was proposing. Jack continued to interrupt. The vice president instructed Jack to address the disagreement outside the meeting. After the meeting, Jack stormed into Amy’s office, slammed the door, and started shouting that Amy had “trashed” Linda. Amy replied that the evaluation was accurate and that Jack had approved it. Jack claimed that Amy had used the wrong tone of voice in presenting the evaluation and had done Linda a grave disservice. He also shouted that he would never recommend Amy for a promotion to the senior leadership position to which she had applied. Two days later, Amy filed a complaint with the human resources department and later left the firm.
Collection of Critical Incidents
Information about critical incidents in an organization, such as this example, can be collected through several different
vehicles. These include focus groups, individual interviews, surveys, performance records, and work diaries. Focus Groups
In focus groups, a facilitator leads a small group of people in a structured discussion to identify and describe specific
examples of past performance. The discussion may be
focused on one or more targeted areas of performance or on
the job as a whole. For example, in a study my colleagues
and I conducted at an aerospace firm to identify management development needs, we conducted focus groups with employees to ask them to provide examples of how their
supervisors helped employees do their best work and examples of situations in which their supervisors made the employees’ jobs more difficult.
A common method of...
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Hammond, S.A. (1998). The thin book of appreciative
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Hoge, M., Tondora, J., & Marrelli, A. (2005). The fundamentals of workforce competency: Implications for
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Marrelli, A.F., Tondora, J., & Hoge, M.A. (2005). Strategies
for developing competency modeling
Meister, J.C. (1994). Corporate quality universities: Lessons
in building a world-class work force
Rothwell, W.J., & Kazanas, H.C. (1992). Mastering the
instructional design process: A systematic approach.
Worthen, B.R., & Sanders, J.R. (1973). Educational evaluation:
Theory and practice
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