Leading On Careers: The Difference Between Can’t and Won’t

Some Employees Can’t, While Others Won’t

I told my email subscribers last week about this cool project I had just completed with a small business client. The company has a large opportunity for growth. One of the most crucial elements in determining if they should take the plunge in this new direction was the abilities of their employees to handle it. This led us into an all day discussion regarding each employee individually and assessing their skill set. Luckily, it being a small business there were only 34 employees so we were able to get it done quickly.cantwontemp

We covered how they were performing in their current role, what is their projected career path with the company (where an acceptable answer could be out the door) and what can the company do to help them along? During this discussion we landed on Pete.

Pete had been with the company since it first opened its doors. He knew the systems and customers very well and was respected by all. Except lately Pete had been asked to take on more responsibility and was struggling. It was baffling to a few in the room that Pete would struggle with anything. I asked them if Pete’s struggles were because he couldn’t or because he wouldn’t.

My husband asked me if I could do something recently. My response was “could I or would I?” There is a difference. I did not want to do the thing he was asking me to do, but I was capable. That’s what I was asking about Pete. Could versus Would. Can’t versus Won’t. Skill versus Will.

I’ve written about skill vs will before, but often when employees are struggling, this is the question we should be asking. Especially if we have just given them more responsibility.

Does Pete have the skill set to do the job? They thought so or they would have never promoted him.

Did we give Pete the proper training to perform the new job duties? They felt like they had. He had been doing some of the work before the promotion and had job shadowed with another leader to learn the others.

Has Pete’s attitudes about work changed recently? (after much thought) Yes, a little. He doesn’t seem as enthusiastic.

Do we know what may have caused this? Well he did have a conflict with a co-worker but it all seemed to have died down.

Has anyone asked Pete recently how he’s doing or how he feels about the new role?

This process is the process I often go through with clients when determining whether an employee has the skill set to do something and just isn’t or when they actually don’t have the skill set and need more training.

There are usually signs that lead to a will issue (being able to the work but just not doing it) such as inconsistent work performance. They do the work some days but not other. Clearly they can do it, just choose not to sometimes.

“Can’t issues” are easier to fix. A little more training and the person can probably get up to speed. “Won’t issues” are a different story. Those rest with the individual and if they refuse to do the work, they are capable of then their only path may be through the exit.

This post has been republished with permission from Sabrina Baker

Sabrina Baker
Sabrina Baker, PHR is the founder and CEO of Acacia HR Solutions, a human resource outsourcing, consulting and recruiting firm located outside of Chicago, IL. Sabrina was a human resource leader for eleven years before starting her own business in 2011. She serves on the Illinois Society of Human Resources Council board and holds the position of Annual Conference Chair. She is also a member of the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) press team and is a regular contributor to their We Know Next blog. After experiencing her own layoff in 2010, Sabrina became very passionate about helping job seekers find work. Through her business and volunteer efforts she makes helping people find jobs a priority. Sabrina was named one of the Top 100 HR Influencers to follow on Twitter via the Huffington Post in 2013 and one of the Faces of Recruiting and Staffing by HR Marketer in 2014.
Sabrina Baker
Sabrina Baker



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