Skill and Will

Originally published on October 19, 2017

Happy Thursday,

Last week I wrote about how I prefer to choose to think of those with whom I work as people who are trying (even in the cases where their efforts may not be successful). This was in contrast to the thinking that these people are “incompetent, lazy, thoughtless, obstructionist employees” or that they are people who cannot do work without asking “needless questions, work diligently without supervision, take initiative to overcome obstacles, and complete assignments promptly.”

I get it though. I’m human. I have both not always been someone who is the best employee from time to time and I have worked with people who would be characterized that way. In thinking about what I wrote last week, I couldn’t help but wonder if someone who read what I wrote—particularly those who are in the midst of leading a challenging employee—would rightfully say, “So what I am I supposed to do with this person?” This is a fair question. After all, even though I choose to see those around me as people who are trying to do their best, there are times when someone’s best is not enough. However, my response to “What am I supposed to do with this person,” is “What would you want your boss to do for you if you were that person who was perceived as ‘incompetent, lazy, thoughtless, obstructionist.’” Let us not kid ourselves that we are not perceived this way from time to time. Though it may not be intentional, the impact of a person’s behaviors can nonetheless be less than what another party hoped for. Then what?

If it were me, I’d hope for respectful honesty. I’d want my boss to seek first to understand so that I had a chance to present my thinking about what I did (or didn’t do). I’d then want to know about how my behaviors and actions were being perceived. I’d hope that my boss would recognize that even though the outcome wasn’t what was intended, that there was acknowledgement that my intention was appropriate. If I lacked the skill necessary to do what needed to be done, I’d want training or coaching so that I could improve. This is assuming that my lack of success was due to unconscious incompetence. Put another way, this is assuming that my lack of success was not due to a lack of willingness to do what was expected, but rather due to a lack of skill to do what was expected—high will, low skill. In this case, work on the skills that I need and I will improve.

There are two other possible scenarios here. The high will, low skill is the best of the three. The second best is that I have low will and low skill. This is preferable to the final option which is low will and high skill. That’s because if I have low will and low skill, at least I’m not sabotaging the efforts. I genuinely can’t yet do what is being asked of me and, in this case, I don’t see the need to learn to do it anyway. If that’s the case, then you have two possible entry points…you can help me better understand WHY I would want to do this thing (work at my will) or you can help me better understand WHAT I need to do (work at my skill). A case could be made for either of these options so I would suggest that determining where to start is best achieved through seeking first to understand. Understanding the why, Simon Sinek argues, is the most important thing for many people and, without it, causes failure of the initiative. At the same time, there are those for whom getting a better handle on what needs to be done is all they need to create a feeling of success and that increases their willingness to proceed.

I said that low will and high skill is the worst case scenario, and here’s why. If you have someone who can do what is being asked but is not, that’s a exclusively a will issue. Yikes. On the engagement continuum, that’s the lowest you can go because that is the epitome of non-compliance. Non-compliant behavior is characterized by certain features. The first is that the person has a low relationship with the task (I don’t want to do that) and they have a low relationship with the person assigning the task (I don’t care about you) and/or the reward for doing the task (it’s not worth it to me). Therefore, assuming the task cannot be altered, the relationship with you or the reward (positive or negative) can be variables that are adjusted. You don’t want to do this? Okay. Maybe you don’t understand how not doing that impacts our relationship with each other. Maybe I need to offer you more compensation or threaten a lack of compensation.

Granted. No one wants to work with someone who is unable or unwilling to do their job. Life would be so much easier if every day we all got to do only the things we wanted to do. Our jobs as leaders, however, are to (1) help people do the work they want to do better and (2) to help people get better at the things that feel like work. If that’s something that we’re not willing to do, then that is the biggest problem of them all.



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