When you just need people to do what you ask. 5 quick ways to get things unstuck

You’re going from one video call to the next, implementing new pivot strategies, putting out fires, and squeezing in your own deliverables in between. Then, the one thing you were depending on from someone else comes in late, with less quality, or not at all. You find yourself wondering, ‘Why can’t people just do their job? Here are 5 quick ways to get things unstuck.

What in the world is going on?

It seems like every organization on the planet has been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Whether your organization has shifted from making beer to hand sanitizer, fine dining to take out, or you’re working hard to keep the ‘lights on’ for others, it’s been a challenging time.

And it’s not just Covid-19

Whether it’s the Australian Bush fires, Black Lives Matter, or freedom protests in Hong Kong, organizations and people have a lot on their minds right now. We’re being asked to change and adapt to higher standards of safety, diversity, inclusion, sustainability, technology, social responsibility, and our way of life. It’s a lot.

It can be confusing

If you’re thinking ‘Dude. That’s exactly why people need to do their jobs!’ You’re right. We always need people to do their part as best they can. But it can be confusing. In a study Gallup conducted with over 50,000 managers between 2014 and 2019, they found that 42% of managers felt they had competing priorities let alone employees. That was before January 2020!

But people still need to do their job. And as Daniel Pink points out in his book DRIVE, most people want to:

  • Make a difference (purpose)
  • Get better at what they do (mastery)
  • Use their own initiative (autonomy)

So, what’s going on when there is a gap between what we expect people to do, and what they’re doing? In the world of Human Performance Improvement this is called a performance gap. How do we close the gap?

5 quick ways to get things unstuck.

1/ Check your own assumptions

When someone is not doing what we expect, it’s tempting to think that they’re ‘just not trying’ or they are ‘resisting change’. But there is a risk if I approach the situation with that ‘assumption’ and I’m wrong:

  • I might erode trust in the relationship rather than build it.
  • I might waste my time suggesting a solution that won’t close the gap.

Ask: What’s another reason why they may not be doing what I expected?

If you read my article on 5 steps to make a difficult conversation easier you might remember the MRI: A More Respectful Interpretation. It can help us to suspend our negative assumptions about why the person didn’t meet our expectation(s) and put us in a better frame of mind to deal with it.

Example: One of your managers is consistently late to your weekly manager meetings. You learn that they were trying to be a good team player by staying behind to deal with customer escalations so that the rest of the managers could meet. Their intentions were good. So, you could thank them for their good intentions and reinforce the need for them to be at the manager meetings on time. You can then work together to find a different way to handle those escalations in the future.

2/ Knowledge

Sometimes people may not know what’s expected, may have misunderstood when you wanted it, or may have a different understanding of the quality you’re looking for.

Ask: Do they know what’s expected?

Notice here, I didn’t ask ‘did I tell them?’ There’s a difference between me telling and someone clearly understanding the goal. So check in to see if they understand what the expectations are. With priorities constantly changing, it’s easy to imagine how someone might lose sight of a task.

Solution: Provide knowledge. Let them know what’s expected and you’ll likely see an immediate improvement in performance.

Ask: Do they know how?

It’s one thing to know what the task is, and another thing to know how to do it. With all of the new protocols, technologies, and expectations, it’s quite possible the person may not know how to tackle the task. The answer again is provide the knowledge.

Solution: Provide them with an idea, some coaching, or even a mentor to guide them through the process.

3/ Skill

It’s one thing to know what is expected. However, some tasks require skill in order to perform the task well. Skill is attained through practice with expert feedback.

I can go on the internet and read how to fly a jet. (I’m not kidding, just click here). That’s knowledge. But would you get in the airplane with me for my first real flight if I had never practiced? Probably not. It takes skill. By the way, most people wouldn’t want you in the plane until they were skilled – see mindset below).

Ask: Can they do it (to the level that’s needed)?

If they used to be able to do the task, ask yourself ‘what’s changed?’ What is different, more complex, or harder?

Solution: they need to practice the behavior and get expert feedback so they can hone their skill(s). For more on this see Anders Ericsson‘s research in his book Peak, How to Master Almost Anything.

4/ Mindset

When someone is not doing what we want, it’s tempting to assume it’s their attitude or mindset. I’ll hear things like: “they’re just resisting change”, or “they’re just not trying hard enough.”

While either of those might be the case, in my experience it’s usually not. There are so many factors that influence our willingness to do a task, our motivation to do it, or our belief that it’s even the right thing to do.

Ask: How motivated are they to do this?

For example, when someone lacks skill in a certain area, that task may seem harder to do, with less guarantee of success, so it’s not as motivating.

Example: You notice an employee who is not following the safety procedures so you send them for ‘retraining’ on the protocols. That assumes they don’t ‘know’ the procedures. I can think of many situations where the employee did not follow the correct safety procedures because they thought it was more important to be fast. It was a mindset, not a knowledge gap.

Solution: It’s important to determine what might be impacting their willingness to do the task. You can always ask them. “Hey, I’ve noticed there are times when you seem to hesitate to do this task. What would make it easier for you to move on this task more quickly?”

pro tip: When it seems like someone’s mindset is what is holding them back, try helping them see the benefit to them for doing the desired behavior.

5/ External Factors

Sometimes there are external factors that can get in the way of someone doing a task. For example, I’ve talked with a few IT professionals lately who are concerned they’re not resolving their clients’ issues as quickly as before. It’s not that they are not trying. For some of them, their home-based internet speeds are slower! It takes longer to upload or download the data.

Ensuring the employee has the tools and equipment to do their job becomes critical. See Gallup’s famous Q-12 survey.   

What else might be getting in their way?

I’m sure you’ve never heard this before; ‘What do you want, quality or quantity?’ An external factor that can sometimes get in the way are metrics (or cultures) that seem to emphasize say speed over quality as an example. The employee is thinking, ‘I know you said be nice but what you really want is speed’. Consider what metrics might be confusing the goal.

Solution: Provide the tools and equipment the employee needs to do their job. This may seem like a no brainer, but as with the above IT employee example, it may not always be easy. Also, remove any impediments that might be getting in their way. Finally, if there are apparent conflicts, such as ‘quantity versus quality’, take the time to explain to the employee why it’s important that they focus on the area you’d like.


When there is a gap between what you’re expecting and what you’re getting, that’s called a performance gap.

To provide the best solution possible, it’s important to do a quick assessment before going in with a solution. Ask:

  1. What’s another reason why they might not be doing what I asked?
  2. Do they know what I want?
    • Do they know How?
  3. Can they do it? (to the level needed)
  4. How motivated are they to do this?
  5. What else might be getting in their way.

I know as a leader you’re busy. You’ve got your deliverable’s and you just need people to deliver on theirs. When you notice there’s a gap between what you’re wanting and what you’re getting, remember that most people are doing the best they can. Before you go to talk with the employee, take yourself through this quick, 5-step assessment and it will make your solutions more effective.