Why engagement and training programs fail to deal with a no can do attitude

There are organizations and units where “no can do” is a frequent behaviour of employees and lower levels of management. No can do is undue pessimism, foot dragging and a passive attitude.

Upon encountering such behaviour, senior management gets all upset and may demand “engagement” programs from the ever so perky HR department, as well as pressure middle management to assume responsibility.

Consultants may diagnose no can do-ism as  lack of engagement and then prescribe engagement or managerial training or even coaching, reminding me of doctors looking at something they do not understand by labelling it a virus caused by stress and tell patients to live a less stressful life style.

Can’t do-ism, however, in many cases is a positive adaptive defence mechanism on the part of employees.Unless recognized as such, it cannot be properly addressed.

Here are examples where a no-can-do attitude actually pays off!

1-an organizational culture in which people are pushed to over commit, and then blamed for delays.  This is very prominent in software, sales and cut throat competitive domains.

2-a culture where constraints to aggressive timetables/goals are negotiated (in the sense of bargaining) ,not discussed. This can be prominent in software, in goal setting, and with certain societies which tend to negotiate instead of discuss.

3-a culture where there is a severe work life imbalance and employees perceive a need to “hide” (pad) from management, because where there is no such thing as priority management, and everything is urgent.

As such, no-can-do is a survival reflex of an abused employee to a dysfunctional organization.

In my experience, all engagement programs, talent management and training efforts that “throw skills” and wow wow (cheerleader) when dealing with no-can-do are doomed, because they see no-can-do attitude through the biased eyes of management.

In worst case scenarios, there is a ready made training/coaching product that is “applied”  to make a fast buck which also helps someone internally look good for rapid action to deal with this no can do  `virus`.

No can do is a severe and hard to diagnose dysfunction which cannot be picked up at a proper resolution via organizational surveys or cured via engagement programs. However when diagnosed qualitatively and without a management bias, there are many positive steps which can be taken to reverse the situation, none of which have anything to do with engagement.

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12 thoughts on “Why engagement and training programs fail to deal with a no can do attitude

  1. So à propos. I am finding myself in the middle of such a culture. The locus where most of the pressure point: 1st line supervisors.

  2. Most of the times that I have been asked to work w first line managers has been a stalling move by a senior manager who did want to own the problem.
    I try and force dialogue between first line management and their boss.First line managers are often scape goated.

  3. Engagement and Training programs can and have succeeded in such an environment under the folowing conditions:

    1) Senior & middle management acknowledge employee disengagement and are open to implementing solutions
    2) The Engagement/Training programs focus on organic, that is, employee-created solutions
    3) There is behaviour change introduced to foster more effective communications and to build workplace trust
    4) There is debate and core agreement on an organization’s vison, mission and objectives (vision must fit on coffee cup and be memorable)
    5) There are rules of conduct, created by all, practiced by all, policed by all
    6) Action on these items is begun the day after Engagement/Training program concluded
    7) There is data and follow up to track positive behaviour change

    • Doug
      Mt 2 cents:

      4 means nothing to me.
      2 should be solutions created between all layers, regardless of hierarchy
      7 the data part is fine as long as it includes qualitative data
      rest is fine

    • Doug, I’m reminded of the layers of OD (or talent management, for that matter), whereby at the lowest level, interventions are (1) Reactive, then (2) Programmatic, followed up the ladder by Comprehensive, Aligned, and Strategic. Reactive is reactionary, always catching up, never getting ahead. Programmatic turns reactions into programmes and opens the door for proactivity, but still not complete. Comprehensive involves robust but isolate programs. Aligned arranges the comprehensive programmes into mutually supportive systems, and Strategic does all this with a future orientation. (I’m not giving a theory lesson, but anchoring my reply in common principles.)

      I relate to Allon’s blog. I think it’s spot on, especially if the engagement interventions are only reactionary “bandages”. If the culture itself is unhealthy, even making engagement interventions programmatic or comprehensive may have little effect, but the chance of an intervention making a broader difference does increase the higher you go the scale. If I interpret your comments through this scale, you’re talking about making sure that the engagement intervention isn’t a one-off reaction.

      At least I hope this is true, because I’m about to embark on one of those initiatives.

      Allon, your warnings come at a good time. Thanks.


  4. Hi Allon,

    Very interresting article. I would need an explanation about the difference you seem to make between negotiate and discuss because as far as I know “Negotiate: to discuss something formally in order to make an agreement”.
    Then, I would need some clarification about your statement 2.

    Kind regards


  5. The key phrase for me is “can’t do-ism, however, in many cases is a POSITIVE ADAPTIVE DEFENSE MECHANISM”. Exactly the thing most doctors fail to understand – any disease (including an organizational one) is almost always the body’s DEFENSE against something (that’s why nearly all surgically removed tumors sooner or later pop up somewhere else – the body is desperately trying to PROTECT you, and you keep removing these DEFENSES…) Those of us living in a dry climate might have noticed that most people there have all sorts of illnesses related initially to a “running nose”. The body keeps trying to MOISTURIZE your breathing canal, and if you keep removing it, it will keep trying to produce more.

  6. Thank you for this…It mad me realise that to diagnose and positively appreciate the reasons for a ‘Can’t Do’ behaviour by employees is to respect their right to be consulted honestly as part of the organisations whole system. It may well be the only way of people expressing truthfully their view in the face of over-dominant managers.

  7. Pingback: The perfect storm: The fearful HR clerk and the OD brush salesman (totally revised) | Allon Shevat-אלון שבט

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