Performance Management: Can’t Do vs. Won’t Do (Part 1)

 Fixing Can’t Do and Won’t Do Leadership Management Performance Problems

Visit the Business section of any bookstore and you’ll find a dizzying array of selections on leadership. Ex-CEO’s must regularly be tempted to explain how they each found the key to unlocking human potential within their employ.

But at the Monday-through-Friday level, employees who perform well come from the tedium of managing the basics in a logical manner: addressing the “Can’t Do” and the “Won’t Do.”

When an employee is not at full stride, good people management requires a bit of careful analysis. Instead of being consumed with frustration, a manager can work through a simple approach to determine causes and solutions. Think, “if this, then that.”

Step 1

Using a classic systems approach*, mentally confront the situation of low performance. If you handed your employee $1 million to perform a problem task correctly, would he or she then be able to do it? If not, you have a Can’t Do situation. Step 1: completed! To stay focused for now, let’s save Won’t Do for next time.

Step 2

Someone once said that 90% of all performance issues stem from unclear expectations. I don’t believe that employees get out of bed in the morning wanting to screw up at work. Business owners and managers have a lot running through their heads, so always assume that your initial communication was at fault. Then, fix by re-stating expectations. Frame up requests with:

  • A: What’s supposed to be done
  • B: How it’s supposed to be done
  • C: What success looks like

If you do, most of the problem will melt away. Can’t Do becomes Can Do. Step 2: completed!

To re-cap, if you offered me $1 million to speak Mandarin and I couldn’t (I can’t!), and then re-stated your expectations clearly for me to speak Mandarin and I couldn’t, then what next? More thinking. A bit more analysis.

If the employee could perform the task well in the past, then what’s needed now is practice and coaching. If the employee could never speak Mandarin before, then training should be provided.

Assuming all efforts to date have fallen short – expectations, feedback, practice or training – the next step is to look for ways to make the task or process easier. Simplification is powerful. Maybe only a few words of Mandarin are needed most of the time. Maybe they don’t even have to be memorized.

If there are risks or obstacles preventing work from being completed, then remove those risks or obstacles. Common sense is not always common practice. Look at your processes – what’s getting in the way? Fix that.

By now you see that all previous steps taken to figure out why the employee is not performing well are built upon one another. If this individual is still falling short, then ask the question: “Does he or she have the capacity to change as needed?” If yes, provide even more training. If the answer is no, then re-assign or replace that employee. Assuming you have made an earnest investment in all of the previous steps, you can safely cut your losses and not feel badly about doing so. Your employee is probably not feeling very successful at this point anyway. He has likely decided that the Mandarin-speaking should best be left to someone else.

When addressing any problem area in business, owners and managers must decide if the cost of a solution will be outweighed by the benefits expected. Addressing employee performance requires the same decision; if the costs are too much, then leave it alone. What’s great about this step-by-step approach to performance management is that direct costs are minimal. Mostly just a bit of time is required on your part.

To end here, let’s quickly go back to the beginning. Is what’s causing your frustration even important enough to address in the first place? If so, then good for you for taking action! You have carefully and systematically addressed an area of concern that’s hindering overall success.

If the source of your frustration is not that important, then move on. You probably have much to do elsewhere.


*Analyzing Performance Problems: Or, You Really Oughta Wanna – How to Figure Out Why People Aren’t Doing What They Should Be, and What to Do About It; Robert F. Mager and Peter Pipe.