With Poor Performers, Is It That They Can’t, or That They Won’t?

Oct 17, 2013

When someone isn’t doing what you need them to do, a question a leader will often ask themselves is this:

“Is the problem with the person? Or is the problem with me? Should I be doing something different when I am delegating, communicating, or supporting this person?”

This simple decision tree (right) has helped me quickly get out of this quandary.

Is the reason the person is not performing because they “can’t” (they, are not capable or trained) or because they “won’t” (meaning they don’t want to).


“Won’t” happens when someone does not agree with a decision or strategy so they drag their feet.

Or they have reason to undermine progress and show passive aggressive behaviors.

Or they simply just doesn’t care enough to want to do the work, so their performance lags the rest of the team.

How to decide which it is

So what should you do if you are not sure if it’s a can’t or a won’t — but you are very sure that it’s a “Not?”

Find out.

If you have clearly defined the performance expectation, you need to have a conversation with the low performer. Your performance has not met the expectations we agreed upon. What do you think the problem is?

Sometimes, this one question is all you need to ask.

If they don’t want to do the work for some reason, it will come out. But if their answer is not clear you can simply ask, “Do you have an issue with what is being asked of you? Do you believe this task is necessary and important? Is your intention to deliver on this at or above expectations?”

Intentions are important

If they don’t support the plan, you’ll know.

If they let you know that they disagree or don’t support what you are trying to do, (and you are certain about the course you are on), then you follow the “OUT” path.

If they do support the plan, find out how motivated they are to improve.

If they convince you that they are on board and then truly want to do the work, then ask them what they are struggling with. Ask them what they need to do a better job. If someone is genuinely motivated, they take personal ownership for their development and will ask for help. Then you give an honest try of training, support, and performance management.

If they don’t take personal responsibility for the performance gap, and they resist help, or blame you or others, or complain that the building is the wrong color, these are all additional versions of “won’t.”

Benefits of removing “wont’s” from your team

If you have a “won’t” on your team — someone who may be capable, but is fighting you at every turn, annoying others, being negative, checking in and out, working against what you are trying to do, or damning it with superficial support — the payoff for dealing with it is big.

My experience has been, 100 percent of the time, that getting a “won’t” out has a remarkably positive impact:

  • You will be more productive, as you will no longer waste time dealing with the variety of annoying, draining, damaging, needing to be corrected or re-worked, “not good enough,” or otherwise apologized-for issues that this person causes.
  • The motivation and productivity of whole team goes up, even if they have to cover the work.
  • Everyone feels the positive impact that results from the negative energy being removed.
  • Your top performers stay motivated to keep performing.
  • You build trust with your team, by showing that good performance counts for something
  • If you position this as a critical skill replacement, you will often get your replacement headcount, even if the rules say no

Poor performance is contagious

I am seeing more and more research that says that the overall team performance is defined by the lowest performer, not the highest performer. Your “wont’s” are keeping your whole team from moving forward.

It’s also important to note that the problem between you and a poor performer is not just between the two of you. Your whole team sees it and they are watching and waiting to see what you will do about it.

The longer you don’t act, the more you degrade your credibility and trust with the rest of your team, and maybe even your peers and boss.

This is the least fun part of management, but I bring it up from time to time because removing low performers has such a big impact on the success of your business, not to mention on your own career and your sanity.

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her latest book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.