Everything we do in life requires two things: motivation and ability. We must have a reason to do it, and we must have the ability to do it. Desire and capability work hand in hand. There are many professional and leadership development books and research bodies that make this point with crystal clarity, but we all see this simple concept in action daily.

Many leaders confuse these two essential ingredients. What often seems like a lack of motivation is actually a lack of ability, disguised as indifference. At times, employees are reluctant to admit a deficiency of ability. At other times, they don’t know that they don’t know something. The latter makes it even more difficult for leaders to respond adaptively.

The manager’s first challenge is to diagnose the issue. Is it a motivation issue or a training issue? If it is a training issue, exactly what development is needed? Consider this example:

Tim provides administrative support to the sales team, and he is tasked with composing and submitting weekly sales performance reports. Karen, his supervisor, is becoming frustrated with Tim’s performance. The problem is that he is frequently late turning them in, and when he does, they are often misleading, due to multiple inaccuracies in the data. What could be happening?

Here are some possibilities:

  • Tim is motivated. He wants to be promoted to the sales team as a territory rep. He is quite adept with relationship, communication and influence, but he does not have the keenest eye for detail. Karen is afraid Tim might miss a sales appointment with a high-dollar client, so she leaves him in a support role. He is good with computers, but his mental process for breaking down data is underdeveloped.
  • Tim is an organized, engaged employee who can see both the big picture and its granular makeup. However, he is intimidated and overwhelmed by Microsoft Excel. He is self-taught but struggles making formulas consistent, using pivot tables and setting up macros. He is mostly right in the end, but the design is inferior, and the clunky formulas occasionally refer to incorrect cells in the spreadsheet. When he is right, it takes him twice as long to create a report than it does Karen, so her tolerance level is low.
  • Tim is lazy. He barely gets by on the job, doing the bare minimum that is outlined in his formal job description. He feels underpaid and overworked and believes that the salespeople are arrogant and condescending. Karen talks down to him and doesn’t recognize him when he performs a task well. Tim is passively disengaged at best. He is currently looking for another job, because he is convinced that this one is a dead end.

What does Tim need? If the first scenario is true, then Tim might need some development in critical thinking. In the second case, it’s simpler. He needs an Excel class, book or video. But what about the third scenario? What happens if Karen sends him to an Excel class or, even worse, invests a chunk of the L&D budget to send him to a week-long leadership program?

That situation might sound extreme, but it happens! Managers often misdiagnose the issue and apply solutions that are not aligned with the problem. The same problem happens in the education system. Johnny struggles in math class, but it’s not the math that has him underperforming. It’s his home life, the bullies in his class or a teacher who plays favorites. More math homework and a tutor are the wrong solutions in this case. Someone must diagnose the real issue and prescribe a more aligned solution.

Managers must act as adaptive leaders. Applying technical solutions to adaptive problems creates additional adaptive problems.

How can you avoid this problem? Here are a few starter questions you can ask in diagnosing and prescribing:

  • Is the problem incidental, or is it a pattern?
  • Would a technical tweak solve the problem?
  • Does the employee otherwise demonstrate high engagement in the organization (physical, emotional and intellectual contributions)?
  • What actual onboarding and ongoing training is provided for all employees?
  • What onboarding and ongoing training has been provided for this employee?
  • How is training ROI determined? Does it apply in this case?
  • What metrics and follow-up will you need?
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