5 Reasons People Don’t Do their Job – and what you can do about it

WTFYou assigned a project to Jasmine. She assured you that it was on track. You checked with her a few times to see if she needed any support, and she said she was on top of it. Upon delivery, you find out that several key pieces were handled incorrectly and must be redone, which will effectively mean a delayed rollout of a major commitment of your organization to its client-base.

How do you address this situation in a way that has integrity, care, and responsibility to all? Most especially, how do you give Jasmine feedback? By feedback I mean telling her what she is doing, or not doing, that is the issue for you; why it is an issue; and what you would propose she do to address it.

Now imagine that this is the fourth time that this has happened. What changes, especially in terms of the feedback you have given her and what feedback you now want to give her?

If you are Jasmine, not her manager, you have a whole other set of challenges than the ones I am considering here. Given how challenging it would be for your manager, you might want to read this, reflect on it, and perhaps develop some new ways for how you can approach your manager to rebuild trust and transform the situation.

After I started writing this piece, I had a conversation with a friend I will call Janet about a situation just like this that happened in the organization she runs. That situation didn’t end well, and the person in question, let’s call her Susie, is no longer working at her organization, a rare event for Janet. As we pondered why the feedback she kept offering Susie didn’t lead to any change in Susie’s behavior, our conversation landed on the one major caveat I have for this piece that I want to say upfront: feedback can only be given usefully when the relationship has a foundation of human trust. Even more strongly: the less satisfied you are with an employee’s performance, the more necessary it is to have trust in order to be able to make things work. Without trust, you will either join the ranks of the many supervisors who put up, for extended periods of time, with people whose performance suffers and nonetheless feel unable to do anything about it, or you will end up taking measures that will, most likely, result in the end of the employment relationship.

feedbackThere is much to be said about how, as a supervisor or manager, you can develop or restore trust with an employee, even when you are not satisfied with their performance. This is not the topic of this post. Here I only focus on how you can address such a situation when you have the necessary trust with the employee to engage in a collaborative discovery process to identify the source of the issue. What is needed is enough trust for you both to know that you are both committed to two things:

  • The shared purpose for which you both work, even as you are supervising Jasmine’s work;
  • Making things work for both of you in carrying out the work towards that shared purpose.

Most important of all, Jasmine must trust that you are interested in her well-being and thriving as an employee, not just that the work gets done. Only then will she be able to genuinely hear what is of concern to you without becoming defensive or submissive, and be able to engage with you effectively in identifying the source of the challenge.

With that degree of trust in place, and with some shared understanding about the behavior in question and its significance, you can then embark on the task of identifying the source of the issue. Although there are many permutations on the scenarios, I have found that they all fall into one of five categories. They each need to be addressed in significantly different ways.


12177985094_7b728bb22b_zIt is possible that Jasmine lacks some essential skills in one or more areas in her job. This is actually the easiest challenge to correct, because the remedy is training. I learned this from experience. After BayNVC, the organization I co-founded in 2002, had a major financial crisis in 2012 which resulted in losing just about all of our employees, we went through a very difficult period of two years with immense challenges in our bookkeeping. In the end, I finally took a significant risk, and hired our current bookkeeper, Rose Johnson, who had essentially no prior experience with double-entry bookkeeping, and I trained her from scratch. I followed the principle I learned about previously: hire for cultural fit and train for skill. I personally happen to have experience in bookkeeping from decades ago, and that was enough for me to invest. The result is stunning; far better than continuing to look for someone with the skill who may not necessarily fit with our culture or have the nimbleness of mind to learn our own somewhat unusual way of doing business.


So if Jasmine lacks some project management skills, she could learn them. However, not everything can be learned, and some tasks require talent, not just skill. In Rose’s case, I knew that she had the talent of amazing attention to detail, and the love of numbers and order that are indispensable to a bookkeeper. These cannot be learned, and their absence would have undermined Rose’s capacity to learn bookkeeping.

What are the talents needed to manage projects, and does she have them? This is a question you can explore with Jasmine. Just the exploration can enhance Jasmine’s ownership of her job and move the entire work relationship forward.

And what if there are holes in Jasmine’s talents? Knowing about them is already a step towards a solution, because it will at least stop the effort to get Jasmine to do something she cannot. It’s humbling and potentially painful, and it’s also liberating to realize limitations. The solution? If the affected areas are a significant part of Jasmine’s role, then it probably would be best to reassign her to another role. If there are enough other reasons for Jasmine to stay in the same role, then you learn to compensate. For example, I lost much of my memory when I had chemotherapy and then went into menopause in 1997. I used to be able to rely on my memory to plan and execute tasks. That is simply not an option, especially now, given how much I hold and am responsible for. Instead, I laboriously created systems for myself to compensate for my lack of capacity in tracking. On those rare occasions when so much is going on that I cannot maintain my systems, I indeed drop things, and, thankfully, that is rare enough that most people think that I track really well.

Compensation can also look like restructuring roles, so that the parts of Jasmine’s job that she cannot do effectively are assigned to others who happen to have those capacities, and Jasmine may take some parts of someone else’s job. In the years of working with support people in multiple capacities, I have noticed that no matter how carefully I prepare a job description, in the end there is a particular person who is hired, not a piece of paper, and they adapt the job’s responsibilities to their talents, skills, and inclinations.


If Jasmine has all the necessary skills and talents and still didn’t get the job done as hoped for, another possibility is that she didn’t have the capacity to prioritize this project because of other time commitments.

I still remember an early supervisor who told me, in no uncertain terms, that it was part of my job to tell him when I wasn’t able to do everything he asked me to do, because it was part of his job then to decide what to do about it. It wasn’t my job to do everything he asked me to do; only to give him the information about what I couldn’t do.

As simple as it may sound, many people find it difficult to do. Instead, they try to do the impossible, and invariably fail. Expecting people to get better at it is a nice idea, and it may or may not happen. Learning how to prioritize when there is more to do than is possible, or to ask for help with it, does not come easily to many people. Instead, as a supervisor you can support both Jasmine and the project by checking in with her more often, and not just about the specific project. My sense is that reviewing the overall territory of what Jasmine is holding and what plans she has for managing each new project on top of what she already has, as well as a willingness to recognize and communicate clearly that you know that some things just won’t get done, are more likely to create the outcome you want: either a job done on time, or a way to know that it won’t be so that you can make your own choices about reprioritizing or coming up with a plan B.

Resources and Support

Sometimes the reason things don’t get done is because the resources necessary to do them are not there. For example, many jobs have a specific stressor built into them in the form of having more responsibility than authority. For example, it’s possible that Jasmine needed the expertise of someone in the organization for whom she is not a priority. In the absence of authority, that person may not respond to her requests for support, leaving her to scramble with her own limited resources, handing over pieces of the project to people who lack that person’s expertise, because she can ask them and know they will likely say yes.

Or it may be that Jasmine is facing personal or family challenges and needs support to continue to attend to her responsibilities at work.

This challenge, like the next one I cover below, is directly related to the question of trust. In many workplaces, coming to a supervisor for assistance is frowned upon, and there is an ethos of self-sufficiency, inherited from the culture at large.

Once again, the solution is most likely with you as Jasmine’s supervisor. Yes, you asked Jasmine if she needed support, and she said she was fine. It’s just too easy to accept that answer. Instead, and especially if this has happened before already, regular meetings in which you go beyond the perfunctory and truly invite Jasmine to review her to do list with you so you can both know how on top of things she is would likely be a vital component of the next phase.


readyThe last possibility is that Jasmine may not actually be willing to do this project, and hasn’t told you. I am leaving this one to the end because I think of it as deep and significant for all of us to understand.

In our modern culture, most people’s jobs sidestep the question of willingness. With so many people unemployed all over the world, and lacking any sense of choice in what they can do to feed their families, vast numbers of people work to survive, and accept the implicit condition that says they must do all that’s asked of them. I want to live in a different world, with a different cultural assumption, and I apply that assumption in the way I work with the small team that supports what I do. Simply put: I want people to take on jobs because they see that what the job entails they fundamentally have overall willingness to do; and then to be asked each time and given the room to express lack of willingness for any one particular task or project. Clearly, if the proportion of time someone expresses lack of willingness is high, they are likely not a fit for the specific job they are doing. So there is delicacy in this, and still, I never want anyone to do anything without true willingness. There are several projects that haven’t happened, or took much longer than I wanted, because no one had enough willingness to take them on.

In the world of work, expressing lack of willingness requires the most amount of trust, because it’s been drilled into us that saying “no” to a boss could cost us a job. And, in many places, this is true. If you want a long lasting and productive relationship with Jasmine, however, it would be vitally important for Jasmine to know that she can tell you if she is not finding willingness to take on a project.

What can you do then? It depends, as always. Willingness, often, is the product of other things. We are less willing to do things when they stretch us beyond capacity (skill or talent); when we are too overwhelmed to be able to take on one more thing; or when we don’t have enough support and resources to get the job done. Often enough, attending to those other things will release the stress and increase willingness. And sometimes it won’t, and you will need to strategize other ways to get the job done aside from Jasmine doing it, or even accept that it won’t get done. I have found that I vastly prefer that to the resentment and mediocre performance that doing things without willingness often brings about.

I started with trust, and I return to trust. I know that I want to support collaborative workplaces, where people collaborate wholeheartedly towards a purpose they all believe in. The path may be challenging; the rewards immense.

Image credits from top, all from Flickr: WTF by ulricaloeb, CC BY 2.0; Feedback,by Sonti Malonti, CC BY-SA 2.0; Workshop by PowerMax Energy, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; Ready by Robert Voors, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0