The Two Types of Supervisory Problems

Excerpt from “Creating High Performers: 7 Questions to Ask Your Direct Reports” by William Dann (Growth Press, December 2014).

As Ken Blanchard has said, there are two categories of problems in supervision: a “Can’t Do” and a “Won’t Do” problem. Can’t Do problems are the responsibility of supervisors to solve. Won’t Do problems are the responsibility of employees to solve. The challenge for supervisors is to determine which type of problem exists and then take effective action on it. Without clarity on which problem exists, an effective plan of correction cannot be developed or carried out. There will not be proper actions in that plan or the proper assigning of responsibility for action. 

Here is a quick explanation of each as well as issues that fall on the border:

1) Can’t Do Problems

“Can’t Do” problems arise because the employee has not been given the tools for success. Can’t Do problems can arise because of one more of the following reasons:

  • Lack of pre-requisite skills and experience. A faulty hiring process can result in an employee not having a chance of succeeding. While it is true that on-the-job training can be effective, unless an employee has the basic skills and experience to be successful, they feel as if they are—and actually are, in fact—set up for failure. Especially in supervisory positions, it is challenging to recover from a poor start in which employees feel as if they have to train their supervisor. 
  • Lack of clarity on responsibilities. This could be lack of or conflicting direction as to products, priorities, or deadlines. The lack of clarity can arise because of 1) multiple sources of supervision or responsibilities being shared by more than one position (both are organizational structure issues) or 2) inconsistent messages from a supervisor. In short, the employee can’t do it because they don’t know what it is.
  • Lack of understanding of the supervisor’s standard for a good work product. The employee may bring the skills and experience required for a given responsibility, but they don’t know your standard for that responsibility or work product. Thus, again, they can’t do it because you have not informed them of what it is.
  • Lack of or unclear rules and procedures. Each organization has its own culture. The culture can be thought of as a set of norms of behavior. Sometimes these are unwritten or not communicated and the new employee can stick out like a sore thumb, e.g., wearing the wrong clothes, engaging in a type of humor or other behavior that is frowned on, or engaging socially differently from the norm. Again, the employee can’t do it your way because they don’t know what your way is. I am familiar with a highly successful health-care provider that requires all new employees to go through a one-week introduction to “the way” at that organization, i.e., its core beliefs and operating principles, how to operate in a team setting, etc. This would be the ultimate cure for this Can’t Do problem.
  • Lack of feedback. The first time an employee takes a shot at doing what they understand is expected in the way in which it is expected, they need feedback that they did or did not get it right. Without the feedback, they are likely to modify their method or product the next time out again due to lack of certainty about what to do. The uncertainty arising from lack of feedback can lead to reduced productivity, as well as inconsistent quality of work product.

In relaying each of the reasons for Can’t Do problems arising, I have written about new employees, but these Can’t Do problems can arise well into the term of employment because of lack of supervision. Also, as Blanchard points out in his SL II® model, each time you assign an employee a new responsibility or task, you need to become more directive in your leadership style. 

Confidence Problems

On the borderline between Can’t Do and Won’t Do is the employee’s inability to operate independently, initiate change, or take risks. A lack of confidence or fear of failure can be the source. This could arise from the employee’s read of the supervisor, i.e., making a mistake will bring a strong reprimand. Or it could be sourced in the employee’s history and mental state at any given time. If fear of repercussions from their supervisor is the source, then the supervisor owns the problem. If it is the employee’s history or mental state, the employee owns it.

As an example, at a welcoming party for a new office manager I once hired, I became curious as to why the new employee was so distant when we had made such a great connection during the hiring process. When I inquired, he responded with, “You are now my boss.”

I replied, “Yes, that is the hat that I wear, but I am me, we are in a social setting, so why the change and avoidance of me?”

He responded, “You now have control over my life.”

I learned that he had been the victim of punishing, arbitrary supervision in the past and was anxious about starting work with an unknown boss. We worked it out quickly, but had we not, he would have avoided making decisions, and his performance would have fallen well short of his potential, which was enormous. 

In this example, there was a shared responsibility. The employee brought in baggage that could have negatively impacted his performance or the speed of his development. In a sense, he was responsible to make that known and certainly controlled whether or not he would come to trust me as his supervisor. My responsibility was to spot this caution and then to take positive steps to overcome it. 

A supervisor can contribute to overcoming these barriers, but ultimately the employee must own them if they are to be overcome. Encouragement and two-way communication can go a long way here, but ultimately the employee has to make the leap. This is rather like taking the training wheels off your child’s bicycle. Ultimately, you have to let go. If the child shuts down and refuses to take the risk, there is little the parent can do. 

When there is turnover in a position, research shows it takes six to nine months to regain the level of performance in that position. The critical variable here is how well the supervisor does in filling the gaps, i.e., eliminating the Can’t Do problems. Most employee orientation programs are deficient, and many supervisors complain that they simply don’t have enough time to perform good supervision. 

Filling the gaps in training, direction, and coaching, followed by feedback and rewards for performance solve Can’t Do problems.

2) Won’t Do Problems

Won’t Do problems arise because the employee consciously or sub-consciously is choosing to not perform as directed. The challenge is that employees with such problems will mask them. They appear to always be busy, engaged, committed, and hard-working. But, at the end of the day, they aren’t producing a product or not the one that you want. You don’t press them because they seem to be “my best employee.” The product they do produce is often confusion. When pressed, they state that they didn’t understand or were confused. Further, they sow confusion among co-workers so as to take away the ability to distinguish the Won’t Do employee from those who are being productive. Teams containing such employees are frequently in disarray. Won’t Do employees and those working with them often have high rates of using sick days. 

When pressed, using the 7 Questions or other questions, Won’t Do employees will speak in generalities about problems or barriers to their producing what you want. The end result here is that the supervisor won’t have the information needed to solve the problem because the problem can never get defined. 

So the only way to really diagnose a Won’t Do problem is by a) looking at statistics that bear out a lack of production and b) employing the 7 Questions but finding that in the end you have nothing tangible to correct as supervisor. That is, you have qualified “yes” answers to all the questions. So you are left with a mystery. Well, there is no mystery here. It’s a Won’t Do problem.

Won’t Do problems arise for a number of reasons. Among them:

  • The employee has lost motivation (or never had it).
  • The employee is seeking revenge or to even the score for some perceived injustice (e.g., being passed over for promotion).
  • The employee no longer supports the mission.
  • The employee is experiencing a personal problem (e.g., divorce, addiction).

Ultimately, the employee owns these problems. They are Won’t Do in nature. The circumstances may be understandable, even tragic, but this should not prompt the supervisor to take responsibility for such problems. The supervisor can’t solve them. He can only aid their solution by the employee.

Won’t Do problems may justify lenience in approving leave or time off for counseling, even investing in some form of help, but they do not justify continuing to not meet performance standards. They only explain them. The hurdle that well-meaning supervisors need to overcome is putting the welfare of the team and organization first at some point.

Ken Blanchard’s original research that was the basis for the Situational Leadership® model was on parenting. Ken then likened growing employees to growing children. The challenge in both situations is gaining clarity as to whether a problem is due to deficient parenting or the willful choice of the child. Loving the child makes it difficult to harshly judge and punish him or her. The same is true for the supervisor concerned about and committed to his employees. But, lack of discipline, when warranted, is detrimental to both children and employees. 

Furthermore, not disciplining employees with Won’t Do problems erodes the standing of the leader. It represents a failure to provide both order and safety in the form of fairness. An employee not meeting standards means that other employees must endure some measure of chaos and must pick up added work for which they usually are not recognized or rewarded. 

Excerpt from Creating High Performers: 7 Questions to Ask Your Direct Reports” by William Dann (Growth Press, December 2014). The book is available in paperback on

William Dann spent 13 years as a CEO before launching his consulting business, Professional Growth Systems, LLC, in 1981. The organization has served more than 200 organizations in the U.S. and abroad, using proprietary solutions to accelerate performance with as little time and resources as possible. For more information, visit In addition to authoring “Creating High Performers: 7 Questions to Ask Your Direct Reports,” Dann has taught for several years at the graduate level at Boston University and is the founder of, a Website devoted to advancing the effectiveness of governing boards.


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