Many leaders have wallowed in the world of “why can’t.” Why can’t employees show up on time? Why can’t managers get their direct reports to perform? Why can’t we get the work done? Why can’t we deliver on time? Why can’t we see the problem? Why can’t we find answers? Why can’t employees be intrinsically motivated? Why can’t managers or employees just figure it out?
There is a never-ending supply of “why can’t” questions that eventually lead to the all-encompassing, “Why can’t things function smoothly without intervention?”
“Why can’t” thoughts are, at best, exhausting and, at worst, demoralizing. The common assumption is that employees, managers, or colleagues recognize the issues and have the requisite experience and skills to solve them, but they have simply chosen not to. In other words, laziness, inattention, or incompetence is the root cause. If the target of the “why can’t” is deemed a difficult personality, all would be well, as long as they improve their focus, commitment, effort, and attitude, right? Despite this belief, this is not the case most of the time.
All too often, “why can’t” judgments are directed outward instead of looking inward to assess whether the leader may be a causal factor. Perhaps we haven’t been clear in our task assignment, its purpose, importance, and interdependencies. Maybe we have assigned a task that misaligns with the person’s talents. It is also conceivable that we haven’t articulated timelines or execution parameters effectively. In short, have we been diligent in our leadership?
Famed leadership expert John C. Maxwell preaches the importance of understanding the personality, temperament, heart, relationships, and dreams of each member of your team. A leader should strive to understand who they are, what their style is, what they love or have a bond to, and what they want. Leaders who understand their people can influence them, and performance will follow.
In a similar approach, John DiJulius, in his insightful book, The Relationship Economy, emphasizes the relational impact of knowing a person’s “FORD” (Family, Occupation, Recreation, and Dreams). The common message is that the more you know about a person, the deeper the connection. The deeper the connection, the deeper the understanding. The deeper the understanding, the better the chances of success. But acquiring such a deep understanding takes time, effort, and energy. It takes work.
That is especially true if the leader struggles with extroversion or if they are naturally operationally driven. Focusing on results usually brings the work, rather than the person performing it, to the forefront. The push for execution triggers an “any able body” mentality, and if a work-skills mismatch occurs, “why can’t” questions can blossom. Taking the time to foster understanding and connection with each team member will take extreme discipline if the leader doesn’t find relationship-building energizing. Because making a connection isn’t preferred, “why can’t” comments occur, presenting an unintended consequence of pushing off the relationship work.
Few will argue the benefits of knowing your people. That deep understanding can bring efficiency and effectiveness when the right person matches with the right task. It can diminish attrition due to an employee’s sense of belonging, feeling valued, and commitment to the organization that emerges from the leader’s interest in the employee’s abilities and well-being. Connecting with and understanding one’s team also brings alignment to the team. By improving the team’s awareness of the firm’s mission and purpose, team contributions and success will increase. When work is meaningful, job satisfaction improves, which generates a positive impact on sustained performance.
Leadership takes effort. If we don’t “do the work,” the answer to the “why can’t” question will often be “because of substandard leadership.”