One Question to Keep Stuff from Getting Wrecked

Dave Blundell
Published on:
January 23, 2021

Whenever we begin to feel the emotions that come from unmet expectations, they should trigger us to practice the pause and ask one question.

One of the perennial  frustrations for leaders are people who don't do what we want them to do. The energy we exhaust trying to figure out how to get other people to take action or change could power a small country.

If you’ve seen the Hulk in any of the Marvel movies, you see what happens when Dr. Bruce Banner lets his frustration take over. Stuff gets wrecked.

Often, the default response to our frustration is exerting power. The thinking goes something like this; the more forceful I am, the greater the likelihood I can finally get my message across and get people to comply. The more frustrated, the more force we exert. Also, the more frustrated the less likely we are to see the other person as human and the more likely I am to attribute negative motives to the person I'm frustrated with. All of that results in nothing good and more likely broken relationships. People get wrecked.

Whenever we begin to feel the emotions that come from unmet expectations, they should trigger us to practice the pause and ask one question. The answer to the question gives leaders a productive path forward. The answer is also our  way to prevent the inevitable relationship wreckage that ensues from force combined with a position of power.

When we run into an unmet expectation, the question should be “Is this an issue of motivation or ability?”

It’s only one or the other and knowing which gives us the ability to respond with the appropriate type of leadership influence. Skill or will?

People are either not able or willing to do what we would like. If they’re not willing, we then look for the appropriate way to inspire or motivate. If they are not able, then we find a way to make the task easier, increase ability, or change our expectations. If it’s an issue of motivation, we provide supportive leadership. If it’s an issue of ability, we provide directive leadership. If it sounds straightforward…it’s not.

Rarely do people have the kind of self-awareness that enables them to be clear if its an issue of skill or will. It’s human nature to avoid pain, embarrassment, and failure. To accurately diagnose an issue of motivation or ability first takes a leader who makes people feel psychologically safe. A lack of safety produces all kinds of defensiveness and blame.

Next, leaders must be able to ask questions that help people explore for themselves whether their obstacle is motivation or ability. “Why didn’t you meet that deadline?” “Why did you do that again?”, is met with defensiveness and avoidance.

What type of questions might you ask to help someone determine if their lack of action is a motivation issue or ability issue?

• “Help me to understand what’s getting in your way.”

• “What are some of the emotions you are experiencing as you think about that job?”

• “What’s going on for you when you think about the deadline?’

• “What are the consequences for us if this doesn’t get done?”

• “How can we make this easier?”

• “What are the competing commitments going on in this for you?”

Lastly, don’t finish the conversation without a plan or at least a next step. Agreement on the problem, won’t likely result in change.

The best thing we can do for ourselves as leaders, and for those we lead, is drop the temptation to apply force, and ask, “Is this an issue of motivation or ability?”

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