Twenty-five years ago, Dr. Robert Mager helped to improve performance improvement efforts by stating what should be obvious. There is a difference between can’t do and won’t do. We can provide skills enhancement and coaching to help the can’t do. No amount of training can correct the won’t do.
I always loved the simple yet dramatic guidance he gave. If you held a gun to someone’s head and they couldn’t do what was asked, it is probably a can’t do. Now, I don’t endorse using a gun to the head as a motivation technique, but it is good to be reminded of the difference.
I run to keep my body and mind in some type of reasonable shape. I have learned proper running techniques that have made it more enjoyable and allowed me to complete distances I couldn’t imagine five years ago. My body decided to teach me the difference between can’t and won’t a couple of nights ago by a recurrence of an old Achilles tendon injury.
I can’t run at the moment. No amount of reading Runners World or watching training videos will change that. The desire is there. Intensely. Every time a take a step my leg breaks down. I can’t. I will be able to with rest and recuperation, but not until then.
I am reminded how many times I have been called in to assist with performance problems on the job. I have been surprised how often the client hasn’t asked this question first. Can they? Or won’t they? I am seldom asked to help with someone that genuinely won’t do something they could. My clients don’t often invest the development of people that won’t do.
I usually find out quickly that the person having the difficulty desperately wants to perform. Just as I want to run. They honestly can’t. The focus then becomes on developing their skills and moving them along towards the improved performance with coaching and reinforcement. Just as rehabbing my tendon will take time, so will development of their competence and confidence.
Leaders need to recognize the difference. I believe many, if not most, assume that performance problems are too often “won’t do’s”. They expect quick results by making it clear they had better perform, or else. Real results happen when the barriers causing the can’t do are removed.
Believe me, if it was as simple as threatening my Achilles to support my leg, I would. But it can’t.