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Can't Do Versus Won't Do: When Training Isn't The Answer

Updated: Dec 31, 2021

Think about the last training you provided to your staff. Why did you provide that training experience? It likely took a significant amount of time, effort, and even money to make that training come to life – so the need must’ve been pretty great. For many business leaders, trainings are requested when there’s a specific task that employees should be performing, but aren’t.

Now, think again about that last training you conducted and consider whether you asked yourself: “Is training the best solution to this performance issue?"

It’s completely reasonable to choose training as a solution when your staff can't perform a task due to a lack of knowledge. However, performance deficits are not always the result of an absence of skill or talent.

Performance deficits are not always the result of an absence of skill or talent.

Sometimes, performance deficits are not the result of employees’ lack of ability to perform. In other words, it’s not that those employees can't do the task. It may well be that employees won’t do that task for some (known or unknown) reason.


Can't Do vs Won't Do

Here’s the kicker: training is only a viable solution when employees can’t do a certain task, due to lack of knowledge or training.

Training is only a viable solution when employees can’t do a certain task, due to lack of knowledge or training.

For an employee to be considered “unable” to do a task, it means that an employee could not perform a skill if his/her life depended on it. It doesn’t matter how much of a bonus you offer the employee, or if you threaten to fire them – they won’t be able to perform the task, simply because they don’t know how.

This is a time when training is necessary because it provides the employee with an opportunity to learn a skill that he/she does not currently possess.

However, in other situations an employee may not perform a target though he/she has the skills to do so. These are won't do issues. "Won't do" problems are times where an employee could perform the target task, but he/she has reasons to avoid the task – could be a faulty process, problematic relationships between or within departments, a lack of available resources, or some other system issue.

In these situations, training would be useless, as the deficit is due to something other than a lack of knowledge.


Causes of Won't Do Issues

Won't do issues often happen when there is a mismatch between available workplace supports and the what is needed to maintain performance of the target skill. The areas where mismatch commonly occur are:

  • Motivation – an employee has no good reason to perform the task

  • Feedback – an employee doesn’t know whether they are doing the task correctly or not (because no one has ever told him/her)

  • Resources – an employee does not have the time, materials, or manpower to complete the task

  • Expectations – an employee doesn’t understand what the task is (no one explained it to him/her accurately)


Motivational Issues

When an employee can perform a skill but continues to fail to perform, one possible problem could be that nothing is providing proper motivation. In fact, poor performance may be rewarded in some situations.

Consider an employee who is asked to track her hours in the company portal, but nothing happens regardless of whether she does or does not enter time into the portal. No one will scold her if she doesn’t, and no one seems to care if she does. In this situation, there is no reason for the employee to follow through on entering her time. Does that employee need more training? Nope. A better solution might be to tie the employee's paychecks to the entry of hours. The employee will definitely make sure to enter time if it’s necessary for receiving her paycheck!

Lack of Good Feedback

Another area that often contributes to performance deficits is lack of good feedback. When employees don’t receive any feedback on whether they are doing good work, it can contribute to poor performance.

Think again about that employee that is asked to track her time. When tracking time, she is asked to code time spent on various tasks, according to a rubric set up by her project manager. While the project manager often complains to the supervisor that the employee is not coding her time correctly, this feedback is not provided to the employee. As a result, the employee continues coding her time incorrectly because she does not know any better.

In this situation, the project manager might think that the employee needs remedial training on how to use the rubric. This would probably be a waste of time and resources. Coding time is not a difficult task to master. A better solution would be to provide a weekly update on the employee's coding performance. This solution is simpler (and would likely cost less in resources) than a training would be.

Lack of Resources

Sometimes "won't do" issues occur when employees don’t have adequate tools to complete a desired task. For example, an employee is asked to draft up a budget proposal by Friday, but some of the figures that he needs to complete that proposal will not be available for three more weeks.

Under these circumstances, it’s easy to see how performance might not meet expectations. However, the employee does not need more training to learn how to make a budget. In fact, sending him to a training would be both offensive and demoralizing. He just needs a better set of figures with which to draft the proposal.

Unclear Expectations

Lastly, some "won't do" problems are due to unclear expectations. An employee might know how to complete a task perfectly, but if he or she does not know that the task needs to be done, a performance deficit is likely to occur.

Imagine an employee who is drafting a marketing pitch for a new client. Management has decided that a new set of videos should be incorporated into the pitch. Management told others on the marketing team, but failed to specifically tell the employee drafting the pitch.

Again, in this scenario, training is not necessary. Simply letting the employee know about this new expectation would take care of the issue far more effectively than training.


Is Training the Best Solution?

The next time that you observe employees failing to do a task, it’s worth taking a little extra time to try and find the cause of the deficit. Is the employee capable of performing the task? Do they have the knowledge to perform the task accurately? If lack of knowledge is the issue, then training might be the right solution.

If the answer is something else, then try to detect what the employee might be missing that is creating the deficit. This process will not only save you time and money, but it will make your employees better performers and much happier in the long run.

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