Skill, Not Just Will

Wanting, wishing, and pressuring gets only so far without the needed skills to make desired improvements.

Want to help others move to higher performance levels that are meaningful -- and lasting? Willpower is not enough, despite what some authors and motivational speakers would have us believe. Along with its cousins “Positive thinking” and “Try harder,” whipping yourself into shape just by "Willpower" is limited -- as is expecting others to do the same. Wanting, wishing, and pressuring gets only so far without the needed skills to make desired improvements, as well as the in-place structure for implementing and nurturing these adjustments. Sure, desire for self-control is important. But it's not enough. In fact, I've found this is just one of five ingredients needed for changing actions (see my article, "Key Ingredients For Changing Behavior" at

When other critical elements for improvement are missing, efforts fall flat, no matter how hard someone tries. For example, suddenly getting pulled out into the open ocean by a rip tide? Trying to swim for your very life against this overwhelming current is unlikely to prevent drowning, even with the strongest Will to survive plus adrenaline stoking each movement. But the right skill mix can save your life: 1. the mental skill of reading water currents so you don’t enter a rip tide in the first place. (or, if suddenly swept up, understanding that rips are narrow and run perpendicular to the shore, and that to escape its pull, you have to swim parallel to the beach, rather than fight its power by swimming directly toward the sand); and 2. the physical skill of being a strong enough swimmer to actually accomplish this, along with the ability to control your breathing to coordinate, not dissipate, the efficient movement of your arms and legs. Of course, Will has an important place here in controlling yourself to not panic. But Willpower alone won’t save your life. Similarly, even those who strongly desire personal safety still have to know what to do and specifically be able to accomplish this.

Understandably, the gravitational pull toward leaders "Will-ing" Safety is seductive. It's inexpensive (as in "Talk is...."), fast, doesn't require a lot of extra resources -- and all you have to do is tell them (and tell them and tell them) to try to magic up turnaround change.

And, for some lesser leaders, overemphasizing Will can create a scapegoat if improvements don't transpire ("It's certainly not us or me. We've given them what they need to work safe. What's the matter with them?"). I've met leaders who insist that worker failures come from their not trying hard enough, not caring about their own safety, or having a weakness of "Will." This frustrated response usually emanates from these professionals seeing “solutions” as simpler than they actually are and also from not providing the "nuts and bolts" -- critical and practical mental and physical skills -- that actually are needed to work safely and productively. It's like exhorting someone to reach a higher part without also providing a ladder. Its corollary -- workers not exactly following a safety policy? Write more policies and try to enforce that people remember yet more procedures, take control of themselves, and act differently.

Alert: to not fall into the oversimplifying "Will-only" trap, here are some common communications to avoid:

  • "Stress management? Just balance your work and your personal life" (without providing concrete methods for doing so).
  • "Think before you act" (without specifically transmitting what to notice and on what to focus).
  • "Just be safe" or "Safe behavior!" (whatever that means?).
  • "Just say no to drugs" (you can see how successful this has been).
  • "Leave your work at work and home at home" (easy to say, virtually impossible for most to do).
  • "Pay attention" (again without transferring any of the learnable skills for directing attention -- of which I can count nine).
  • "Have a strong itch? Just don't scratch it."
  • "Control yourself." (What does this mean in real life? How do people really do this?)
  • "Just make it happen" or "Don't give in!"
  • "Be a good role model" (by specifically doing ...?)

I'm sure that without much effort you can likely think of other such "quick and dirty" catchphrases, none of which work -- and all of which potentially reduce the credibility of those demanding these "changes" by calling for Willpower. These likely result in pressure and guilt; further, they may engender an underlying perception of personal weakness and ineffectiveness -- ironically, just the opposite of their expressed intent. If it's so easy to dispense these generic pills of advice, why can't I and we and they just do what they're "supposed to"? Communicating this is neither helpful for encouraging change not does it build effective relationships. Plus this approach is self-limiting. For every attempt at installing a Jiminy Cricket angel on one shoulder, there's often a Tasmanian Devil balancing on the other, feeding negative lines in that ear.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that Will is unimportant. Self-control is critical to all kinds of performance -- in leadership, sports, family communications, everything. Knowing when not to say something and making sure you actually don't can be a critical difference between strong relationships or once-good ones that become torched.

But if you want significant and lasting improvements in safety performance and culture:

1. Determine what skills are needed to make these so.
2. Look around to make sure you're considering critical skill sets that might currently be outside your base of experience; inquire what skills other organizations have brought in. Be wary of merely trying to reintroduce something that hasn't worked in the past.
3. Decide how to most effectively transmit then support critical skill usage in daily actions. Be sure to elicit input from workers and supervisors in your planning.

Sure, harnessing Will is an important early ingredient to break the inertia of "keep-on-doing." But best leaders know that developing fitting skills is the ultimate key to tangible and lasting performance improvements.

This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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