Having just read the last chapter, you decide it would be a good idea to tell Kyle about the natural consequences of missing the deadline. You figure that he needs to know:
Let me tell you something. If people ask the wrong questions at the debate, we re going to look like a bunch of dopes because we don t have the position paper.
Kyle turns ashen white, mumbles something about tracking down the specialist, and dashes off like a scared rabbit.
Now he s really motivated! you think to yourself.
We hope you wouldn t actually do this. Being the steely-eyed smart person you are, you would note that Kyle was motivated to do the job. Piling on more reasons for doing something he wasn t able to do in the first place would be the wrong cure. Indeed, it would be cruel . Kyle needs help removing the barriers he s facing , not a kick in the pants, and so that s where we ll turn . What does it take to help others remove any and all barriers they face? Better still, what can we do to make it easy, even painless, for others to complete their assignments?
To learn how to enable others, let s start by examining two of the more subtle aspects of motivation and ability. First, motivation and ability are linked at the hip. They aren t separate entities. More often than not they blend into one another. Here s why. If something is hard to do ”perhaps noxious and boring ”it s demotivating. Who really wants to muck out a horse stall? Or fill out expense reports ? Or write a term paper?
Here s our first question: If a job is difficult or revolting or tedious , does this constitute an ability problem or a motivation problem? The person is not able to do the task, at least not easily, and as a result is not motivated to do it. What are we looking at here?
By the purest definition, if individuals can do a job but are not doing it, it s because they aren t motivated. The metaphorical test people often apply to this question is: If you held a gun to their head, could they do it? If the answer is yes, they re able but unmotivated.
This simplistic yet violent test doesn t serve us well. If a job is truly impossible , it s a clear-cut ability problem. That s an easy call. For instance, Kyle tried his best to finish his project but was prevented from finishing on time. This had nothing to do with motivation. However, if a task is difficult, disgusting, or dreary, we need to think of the problem in a more complex way. It s not pure ability. It is a composite problem with both motivational and capability components .
Here s how the two elements come together. In the short run, if a task is undesirable but not impossible, we can crank up the pressure and get the job done. Over the long run, we want to find a way to remove some of the factors that make the job undesirable or we ll constantly be looking for ways to motivate people to do what they hate doing. And that s never fun.
Here s another concept to keep in mind. When diagnosing the cause, we have to be dead certain that we haven t confused motivation and ability. As completely different as the two things are, people don t always make it easy for us to tell whether they don t want to do what s been asked or can t do it. In fact, we pretty much assume that if we ask nicely enough, people will tell us straight out whether they couldn t complete an assignment, they wouldn t , or both.
For instance, Wanda, a service-repair technician who works for you, doesn t show up at a client s office. You ask what happened , and she comes back with I went there, but the doors were locked. I used my cell phone to check what was going on and got an answering machine.
It was a clear-cut ability problem. When you re lucky, people come right out and tell you if a problem was due to motivation or ability.
But you re not always that lucky. More often than you d like, the other person (in this case, Wanda) comes back with something such as You know, stuff came up.
This response is just ambiguous enough to be dangerous. You need to probe for can t or won t . With this in mind, you ask, Are you saying that you ran into a problem or that you didn t want to do it?
Wanda continues to baffle you by saying, You know how it is. I just never got around to it.
You probe one more time: I m not sure what you re saying. Did you choose not to do it, or were you unable to do it?
Finally Wanda fesses up. She tells you why, and as is often the case, it s complicated: I hate working for those guys. They look over my shoulder and complain the whole time. They give me the creeps. I was hoping if I didn t show up, you d schedule someone else.
There you have it: She didn t want to do it (for understandable reasons), shirked the job, didn t let you know, left the client hanging, and was hoping that you d reward her by sending someone else to the tough client. She chose not to do it (motivation), and as is often the case, she was not all that motivated because she was not all that able. She didn t know how to deal with a tough client.
You d probably start this conversation with the fact that she chose not to do the job, left the client high and dry, and hoped you d somehow look the other way. That s a serious infraction. You might eventually work with Wanda to help her get better at dealing with tough clients , but you re not likely to start there. In any case, this problem, like most, is fairly complicated and requires a detailed diagnosis and multiple solutions. Without going into all the sources, you re only going to be able to deal with a subset of the underlying causes.
Believe it or not, sometimes people purposely hide the genuine source of a problem. If they fear that they ll get in trouble for not being able or not wanting to do what s been asked, they may stretch the truth to avoid new problems. For example, an attending physician asks a medical student to insert an intravenous line into the chest of a 75-year-old patient. The student isn t quite sure how to do it, but when the doctor is called away to work on a cardiac arrest, the student says nothing. Instead, he attempts to insert the line and punctures the sac around the woman s lung, and the patient later dies of related complications. A woman dies because the student is uncomfortable saying that he just might be unable to do what he s been asked. (This actually happened.)
Perhaps the most common ability problem people try to hide is their illiteracy (23 percent of the population is illiterate). Employees fear they ll lose their jobs if they admit that they can t read or do basic math. You ask, John, how come you didn t set up the new equipment? John couldn t read the directions, tried his best, and failed. He thinks he ll be fired if you find out that he can t read, and so he answers, I hate doing that kind of stuff. It has all those fancy numbers and charts and things ”not that I couldn t do it if I wanted to.
If you immediately assume that John simply doesn t like doing the task, you ll want to explain the natural consequences: John, we have two clients waiting on the job, and the longer you take getting the equipment up, the longer they ll have to wait.
This, of course, is a doomed conversation because no matter how many consequences you explain, John is still stuck.
As weird as this may sound, it s not uncommon to discover that employees who are being disciplined for excessive resistance or even insubordination are hiding the fact that they couldn t do what they had been asked to do. They chose discipline over shame or, worse , the possibility of being fired.
Probably the most common form of masking takes place when people cover up their lack of motivation with a bogus ability problem. This often occurs when a person figures the boss doesn t really care what happens but then the boss shows up wanting to know why the job wasn t done. Suddenly an ability block sounds better than saying, I didn t make it a priority. Thus, people come up with whoppers like these:
I would have been here for the early meeting, but my alarm didn t go off.
I would have mowed the yard before your lawn party but I was wondering if maybe I should cut it shorter than usual.
It s important to listen carefully to the answers to your diagnostic questions. When John states, It s got all those fancy numbers and charts and things ”not that I couldn t do it if I wanted to, a careful person might continue probing about difficulty, making it safe for John to say that he has trouble with the directions.
In responding to bogus motivation problems, it s common to give the person the benefit of the doubt the first time: So what are you going to do to ensure that your alarm goes off next time?
If excuses keep cropping up, you have to deal with the pattern as in this example:
This is the third time you ve run into some kind of problem. We ve been patient, but the fact is, you have to make those early meetings.
The last five times I asked you to do a chore around the house, you agreed, I left on an errand, and then you came up with questions and didn t do the job.