Performance Management: Can’t Do vs. Won’t Do (Part 2)

Dealing With Can’t Do and Won’t Do: Part 2 Leadership Management Performance Problems

Feeling frustrated with how an employee does her job is a sign that performance needs to be actively managed. Critical to meeting the daily goal of unlocking employee potential is knowing the difference between Can’t Do and Won’t Do, and then responding to each underlying cause with the right solution.

Previously discussed is a simple test to analyze a frustrating work situation. The thinking exercise starts by offering a hypothetical $1 million to an employee who is not meeting the business requirement to speak Mandarin. If the offer does not yield the desired outcome, a Can’t Do situation is at hand, and a step-by-step approach is needed to address. Now let’s look at the other side of the performance coin. If the $1mm would get the employee fired up and speaking Mandarin, then the matter can be safely diagnosed as a Won’t Do. Again, a step-by-step approach is needed by the manager in response.

You’ve probably seen Won’t Do for yourself. The ability is there, but the willingness is not. Won’t Do shows up in the workplace in many ways: taking shortcuts or unnecessary risks, making careless mistakes, being consistently inconsistent, or being resistant to change. Often there is a low simmering attitude of “I know better,” or worse, “I don’t care.”

To discuss tactics to confront Won’t Do, let’s use a more common business example of data entry. Many jobs require keying data into fields inside a system. Good data entry is complete, accurate and timely. Not the most glamorous aspect of anyone’s job, it still has to be done right and on time. When starting to analyze a troubling situation, a manager must firmly decide that good performance does matter, and that poor performance is important enough to address.

Step 1, as with Can’t Do, is to re-state expectations. Describing the what, the how, and the goal may just be enough to change Won’t Do to Will Do. Always assume that the first occurrence of slippage is an honest oversight. A gentle reminder can work wonders. By speaking up you are conveying, “I’ve noticed, and it matters.” Step 2 is to follow up and to see if improvement takes place after the reminder. Follow up is key. If change does happen and no one notices, don’t expect it to last for very long!

But what if late or incomplete data entry happens again? That’s no longer an honest mistake. Step 3 is to figure out if additional resources are needed. What would make the task easier? Perhaps providing a chart reminding which fields are need-to-have and which may be left to the discretion of the employee. Or, a block of dedicated time daily for data entry when no meetings or interruptions are scheduled.

So far, expectations been stated and re-defined, work has been observed as not meeting requirements, and additional resources have been provided to the employee; all for the sake of reducing the inconsistencies regarding data entry.

But the situation persists. What now?

More steps can be taken. Continue your thoughtful analysis:

Is the desired performance – good data entry – somehow being “punished?” Like the kid who gets an “A” later being jeered on the school bus, meeting standards at work may not feel so good. Maybe the data entry is preventing time for more enjoyable tasks, or causing the employee to work late too often. If this is the case, then strive to remove that punishment. Creative solutions probably exist to solve this problem.

Conversely, is bad data entry somehow being rewarded? Think of the positive intangibles associated with the role in question. For example, are shortcuts being taken to finish the tedious task quickly so as to move on to more enjoyable project work?

Finally, are consequences for either good or bad data entry in place and being used properly? Consequences may be both intangible as well as monetary. Reinforcement of performance must happen, whether it’s an “atta-girl”, a performance bonus or anything in-between. Doing job tasks rightly or wrongly must have consequences that make sense and are strong enough to shape behavior. There is likely an entire range of options available to managers to align consequences properly with desired outcomes.

As discussed last time, all performance management steps must be considered against a backdrop of cost vs. benefit. If a solution is too costly per the lift brought to your organization, then obviously that’s not the right answer. The good news is that when actively managing performance, most solutions only cost managers a little time and energy.

If your employee STILL won’t enter data correctly, accurately or on time, then a written plan for action should be put into place with a frank discussion about the need for sustained change. After all of that, a transfer or termination represents the end of the line. If all previous steps have been taken, separation should not cause the manager any sleepless nights.

For those of you wondering if so many steps represent an unjustified investment in an employee, that’s a fair question. Again, you must decide what’s important to address in the first place, and at what cost in light of the hoped-for benefit. But all these steps suggested for managing Won’t Do and Can’t Do are entirely reasonable. They also protect the manager against an unintended emotional or over-bearing response to a frustrating situation.

Like it or not, performance management comes with the territory of being a manager. Systematic performance analysis as described here helps the manager to first read problem situations correctly. Then, the employee is benefited with ample opportunity to change. Problem employees usually know when they have been given a fair shake, and often don’t cause problems if things don’t work out. Those left behind will likely feel that manager/employee trust is still intact. They’ll know that their management team works for measured improvement in response to difficult situations, starting with clear communication about the need to meet standards.