Can’t or Won’t?

It drives me nuts to hear people confuse “can’t” for “won’t.”

  • HR Department: We can’t send employees to that needed training …
  • Manager: I can’t let my employee go to that conference she wants to attend …
  • Leadership Team: We can’t implement that approach/program/tool …
  • Employee: I can’t take on any more responsibilities …

Failure-3Definition-wise, can’t stems from a skill or capability deficiency, or possibly allocation of resources, although I would argue that resource allocation is really a “won’t” topic.

Won’t stems from a decision, a determination of priorities, and is grounded in taking responsibility and being accountable for that decision.

Confusing the two shows lack of understanding or faith in one’s abilities, or unwillingness to make and communicate a tough decision. Imagine the strength of leadership needed by the fictitious people in the statements above, if they were to choose to say “won’t” instead of “can’t.”

A dear friend of mine passed away last Friday, quickly and unexpectedly. My friend Michelle never accepted can’t; there was never a situation she didn’t think she or you had the knowledge, brainpower or resources to tackle. Michelle also never settled for won’t. She kept after something until her energy, passion, commitment or sheer determination inspired action.

Confusing can’t and won’t is not a matter of word choice, for these are words determined by mindset and attitude. My friend Michelle always could, and always would.

Heather Nelson is a partner with PeopleResults. You can reach her at hnelson@people-results.com or on Twitter at @HeatherGNelson1. Sign up to receive the PeopleResults blog at Current.

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