Is Your Employee a “Can’t” or a “Won’t?”

Written by on August 22, 2017

This may be the most important distinction you will ever learn as a leader. Leaders and managers who never learn to discern if their people are “Can’ts or Won’ts,” will have a career of frustration and confusion. They will waste valuable time working with the wrong people, and all metrics will suffer.  Being able to discern the difference between the two will make you more effective in your role than 90% of all leaders.

Let’s start with the definitions: 

Can’t – They don’t know how to do it. It is a capability issue.  If someone is a cant, you train them.

Won’t – They refuse to do it, passively or actively. It is a motivational issue.  If someone is a wont, you warn them.

After you read those 2 quick definitions, you immediately get this at the level needed to make better decisions about developing the talent in your organization.  Leaders can create serious issues when they misdiagnose a situation and treat a Can’t like a Won’t… or vice versa. Here are the common mistakes:

Treating a Can’t like a Won’t – In this scenario, the leader dealing with a performance issue treats the team member like they don’t want to perform. They assume the employee doesn’t understand the priority of the job so they make the situation more urgent. They might even involve other people. They express disappointment. The reason this approach backfires is that the person actually does want to perform…they just don’t know how. Worse, they are probably afraid to speak up or be transparent because they fear appearing incompetent.  There is a capability shortfall but it has nothing to do with their level of motivation or interest.

Treating a Won’t like a Can’t – In this situation, the leader understands someone needs to be coached and focuses on getting the person support, resources and/or training. They do everything they can to make sure the person can do the job. The problem is that the person doesn’t want to do it at all, even if they know how. The lack of performance has everything to do with motivation and nothing to do with capability.  The reason for this is usually simple…they don’t understand how it connects to the bigger picture and just don’t deem it necessary.

Said differently, if you treat a won’t like a can’t, you will waste valuable time.  You will send this employee to training sessions, have more one-on-one meetings than you do with anyone else, keep the “right” person from having this job, etc.

If you have a can’t you are treating like a won’t, you will create unnecessary frustration for both of you.  Any employee that you are frustrated with right now deserves you asking the right question:  Do they have the necessary training to do their job effectively?  We often assume people do in situations that prove otherwise.

You’ll find that over time you will almost automatically be able to discern between these two very different kinds of performance issues. You will see much faster improvement and progress through to positive resolutions. In organizations where the Can’t / Won’t paradigm is understood, the language even changes with the leaders. You and your team will be saying “is it a can’t or a won’t?” trying to resolve performance issues.

The bottom line: Adding this kind of discernment to your leadership skill-set is a difference maker.  If they are a can’t, train them.  If they are a won’t, warn them.



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