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Engage Capable (yet Unwilling) Employees

By AICC Staff

September 12, 2019


Over the past few years, the No. 1 complaint of CEOs I know has been the inability to find willing and capable people to work in our industry. This is fueled by several factors, including the perception of manufacturing jobs and an economy that has given job seekers the ability to be more selective. As I stated in my last article, many current and future employees may be converted to become both willing and capable.

If a candidate for employment presents you with the perception that they are capable of doing the work but seem reluctant to do so, then I suggest that you encourage them to find their bliss elsewhere. However, if you have employed the person and invested time and resources in growing their capability, then I would recommend an aggressive plan to get them engaged. If they remain unwilling, then you can free up their future in good conscience for the sake of your company culture.

How might a capable but unwilling employee be identified? They may do their jobs to keep their jobs, but they do them at their own pace, by their own methods, resisting standardization and attempts to improve productivity. They may become information bottlenecks by reticence to share process knowledge. This may be in part to ensure job security or just status. In these days of high turnover, perhaps they perceive that newer employees must prove their commitment before becoming worthy of training.

My first consideration is always what is gained by these behaviors. Some grammatically challenged person has said that “people don’t do nothin’ for nothin’.” So, when I hear that additional warehouse space is needed for finished goods, I do not blame salespeople. Instead, I ask if they are paid when the product goes into the warehouse or when it ships to the customer. They are not doing it for “nothin’ ” if they are paid to put it in the warehouse.

With regard to our capable but unwilling employees, the first consideration would be what they gain by the lack of engagement. Are they protecting a secure position? Have they been fooled before by short-lived initiatives? Do they know that participation is not mandatory?

The second consideration is how we can remove the obstacles to engagement. In order to make it safe and worthwhile to willingly participate, we will need to change the way we behave. An issue common to this economy is the bimodal workforce, in which employees of experience near retirement are averse to sharing knowledge with more recent hires for fear that they will be pushed out of their positions. There are legal and ethical considerations that would guide your course even if you did not value the wisdom of experience. The key is to unlock that knowledge so that greater bench strength is achieved. To accomplish this, I will suggest a course of action.

State the Obvious

Do this because it is not obvious to them. Have whoever handles human resource responsibilities in your facility sit in on a conversation in which policy and strategy are clearly stated. With very limited exceptions (pilots, law enforcement, air traffic control), age-based mandatory retirement is illegal, and this is likely stated in your employee handbook. Having said this out loud, and thereby taken the first step to removing that obstacle of fear, you can talk about company values.

Value Training

In the past, your company, like most, may have valued expert operation above all else. Employees have learned that being the one person who can solve a problem or run a difficult job is the core of their value proposition. My next step would be to apologize to this employee, as this unspoken policy has fostered insecurity in the individual and limited the growth of the entire team. Let them know that you expect them to go beyond expert operation to become a lead trainer on all their processes. Let them know that you will be tracking and recognizing all employees and holding all accountable. Consider pay-for-​performance, in which those who operate and train others see a difference in their compensation. If training is uncharted territory, then resources are available on AICC’s Packaging School,, to assist (e.g., Communication for Coaches and Howto Train Anyone to Do Anything).

This growth in your culture will pay dividends, in that training and mentoring will become a badge of honor rather than a threat to job security. When the job description includes training that is tracked and rewarded, it becomes a reasonable expectation. When the unwilling and capable employee is engaged, the whole company will gain strength.

width=150Scott Ellis, Ed.D., provides the brutal facts with a kind and actionable delivery when a leader, a team, or a company needs an objective, data-based assessment of the current state of operations and culture. Training, coaching, and resources develop the ability to eliminate obstacles and sustain more effective and profitable results. Working Well exists to get you unstuck and accelerate effective work. He can be reached at 425-985-8508 or