Coach Them Up or Coach Them Out

Leadership leaves clues. What this means is that there is always clear evidence of exceptional leadership…or the lack of it…in any organization or department. We never have to guess about whether we are leading or managing effectively, because our results are right in front of us every day. These results can show up in a lot of different ways. They will show up in the outcomes, they will show up in your retention of talent, and they will show up in your culture.

What is the clearest evidence of exceptional leadership?  Here’s what you should be looking for:

Improvement – People showing measurable improvement over time

Capability – There is an understanding that everyone has upside

Engagement – People are interested in the success of the organization

Bias for action – People initiate things, they don’t just talk about what should happen

Expectation – The team expects everyone else to perform

Coaching is leadership in action. Have you even thought about how optimistic the act of coaching really is? Coaching someone means that you really believe they can get better with some attention and expectation. It means you know they are full of potential and that you are interested in helping them discover it.

In contrast, we see organizations all the time where people are clearly not improving. Businesses, departments and divisions where people are hired with a certain skill-set and those skills are basically their long-term contribution to the team. They don’t improve…because they’re not expected to improve. This is typical of an organization without enough coaches.

There are many coaching strategies, but let’s start with the most crucial understanding for leaders who are focused on improving their teams. 

The Crucial Difference Between “Can’t” and “Won’t”

This may be the most important distinction you will ever learn as a leader. Leaders and managers who never learn to discern between “can’t” and “won’t” will have a career of frustration and confusion. I would go so far as to say that if this distinction is all you know as a manager, you will still be more effective in your role than 90% of all leaders.

Understanding the seemingly-simple difference between the two is the key to making good personnel decisions as a leader. Let’s start with the definitions:

Can’t – They don’t know how to do it. It is a capability issue.

Won’t – They refuse to do it, passively or actively. It is a motivational issue.

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” – The leader dealing with a performance issue treats the team member like they don’t want to perform. They make the situation more urgent. They involve other people. They express disappointment. This approach backfires because the person actually does want to perform… they just don’t know how. There is a capability shortfall, it has nothing to do with their level of motivation or interest.

Treating a “won’t” like a “can’t” – The leader focuses on getting the person support, resources and/or training. They want 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.

Take a look at this simple flow chart that shows the steps toward resolution of any performance issue:

The first thing you have get right is the “can’t” or “won’t” question. After that, things become pretty clear…you just have to execute.

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”?” when trying to resolve performance issues.

The bottom line: As a leader you need to coach them up, or coach them out. Adding this kind of discernment to your leadership skill-set is a difference maker.

1 Comment
  1. Susan Schrader 1 year ago

    What is the best way to determine whether it is a “can’t” situation or a “won’t” situation?

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