There are three reasons why an employee won’t do something. It’s important to know which of the three is affecting your employee because the solution is different for each reason. There is a common mis-conception: “If I tell people what to do they should just do it”. Sorry, it doesn’t quite work that way some of the time.

#1 They Don’t Know How

Your employee won’t do things the way you want if they really don’t know how. The challenge with this is that you may think they know how. You may have told them; even repeatedly; but as we all learn with communication that really doesn’t mean they understand. They need to know what to do, when to do it, and how exactly things should be done. The test for this is to answer these questions

  • Have they done it before correctly?
  • If I held a gun to their head could they do it correctly?

If the answer to both questions is NO (or I don’t know) then this is a likely cause. The solution for this is training. But an analysis of the training needed should be done to determine exactly what needs to be trained and if this is a standard or customized issue.

#2 Something Is Stopping Them

There may be something in the structure or process that makes it so difficult they just stop. I remember after I was first promoted to management the first time I had to approve and process an invoice for payment. When I looked at the number of steps and the hours it would take me; I simply put it back in my in-box and ignored it for as long as possible. (I eventually did it of course). But this is a normal human reaction. If it’s too hard, or we don’t want to go through the process we won’t. Here are the questions you ask yourself and your employee to determine if this is a cause. Spend some time searching for root causes so that you don’t over-look anything.

  • Are others performing the task successfully?
  • What is stopping you from finishing this task?
  • Is the process broken?
  • Is there a step in the process that is producing a bottle-neck?

The solution is to re-design the process or, if the employee knows how but it’s too hard, then add practice to increase confidence and competence.

#3 They Aren’t Motivated

This is where most managers look first but it should be the last thing looked at. If you know the employee can perform the task required, and there is no apparent block stopping them, they may not be “on-board”. They may not understand the importance and significance of the task.

The questions you should ask are:

  • Do they perceive it as important?
  • Do they see this as their responsibility?
  • Do they see this as a priority?

The answer is to spend some time sharing the vision; why is this important to the customer or client first, and why it’s important to the company. Of course, all employees want to know what’s in it for them. There are specific steps to take when holding these conversations that in most cases leave the employee committed to the job.


If you aren’t getting the performance you want from your employees take the time to analyze the situation. You will want to match your response to the cause of the sub-standard performance. As they say: Do you know what they call treatment without diagnosis? Mal-practice! It doesn’t just apply to medicine. It applies to management too! So ask these three questions:

  • Can they do it?
  • Is there something stopping them?
  • Are they motivated?


About Judi Pine-Sellers

Judi Pine-Sellers is a small business consultant specializing in employee productivity. She has designed dozens of management and employee programs used world-wide. Judi is an expert in all phases of managing employee performance; selection; orientation; training; correcting performance problems; career development; and succession planning. She holds a Master’s Degree in Instructional Design as well as advanced certificates from Thunderbird School for International Management and the University of Michigan, Executive Education Business School.

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Three Reasons Why Employees Don’t Do What You Want

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