Sometimes, You Just Can’t Get Employees to Improve


In my 30 years of running my own business, I’ve seen just about every performance issue you can imagine, and maybe even a few you can’t.

I believe in my employees and I always try to help them make the most of their talents by empowering them, motivating them, and helping them get more skills.

Unfortunately, the old saying that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink is true. Some employees simply can’t, or won’t, improve in the key areas that you need them to, no matter how hard you push, pull, encourage, or incentivize them.

The following is a series of examples in which I was just not able to engage employees in improvement when and where I needed them to, followed by the lessons the experiences taught me.

Talk the talk

I once had a young employee who came from a blue-collar family in a rough neighborhood. He was a wonderful young man; pleasant, hard working, diligent, etc. He deserved a chance and I gave it to him.

However, his grammar was so poor that I couldn’t put him on the phone, which meant that I couldn’t pay him more or promote him. I knew he wanted move up, and I knew he was a hard worker, so I hatched an idea to help him improve: I purchased for him some grammar videos and elocution training.

I even sent him to a seminar or two. I thought, “This is great. He’ll lose his old bad habits and he’ll be able to speak much better.”


He wasn’t the type of young man who faked who he was, and part of who he was was his use of language. He eventually had to find a different job because he was in a dead end with my company.

It was a tough loss, but I couldn’t ask him to change who he felt he was. He was an incredibly hard worker, and he pushed himself, but I couldn’t move him up in the company, nor could I change the company to fit him. We needed clear speaking, universally understood sales reps — that’s who we were.

Who needs typing?

I once hired an employee in his late 40’s who was “technology challenged.”

In his prior career, he was in management and he got there without using computers. However, everything in my company was performed on a computer, so he did everything much slower than everyone else.

I valued his management experience, but, if he couldn’t be productive with the tools my company used, how could he manage anyone?

I encouraged him to learn how to type in order to move more quickly on the keyboard, so he could move around more quickly in our software. But he fought me every step of the way, citing that typing would not help him. He wanted to do things his way, not our way, and he acted like I was punishing him by asking him to change. He eventually left.

I wasn’t exactly sad to see him go. A company’s culture is defined and modeled by leadership, and I couldn’t use his previous leadership experience if the cost was a clear example of obstinate refusal to change.

How dare you fire me?

I hired a technical support employee who, over time, showed that he barely had the skills necessary to provide technical support to my customers.

I was happy to provide him with employee training and all the other tools he’d need to get up to speed, as I do with all my employees. I also explained to him that he was the weakest on my support team, and repeatedly encouraged him to use downtime between calls and/or his lunch hour to get his skills current by reading information about the technology we use.

But when his downtime came, there was no push to improve. I never saw him reading the training and support material. While his co-workers used their downtime to gain proficiency with the materials they were covering, he was reading novels.

When there was a business downturn, he was my least qualified support analyst and, consequently, was the first one I let go.

When I gave him the news that he was being let go, he came into my office, shouting, “How dare you? How dare you lay me off? I have a family with kids!

I felt horrible. Firing an employee is never easy. I would have felt even worse had I not been so transparent about what was required of him.

I turned his words around on him, and I said “How dare you waste your time instead of honing your skills like I suggested. You are the one that has hurt your family by your actions.” My stern reaction surprised him, and he nodded almost in agreement and walked out the door.

Friends to the end

I had one employee who was a friend of mine growing up as young boys.

Although he was very smart, he refused to learn how to use technology. He even refused to use an email address that we gave him. He was very stubborn, which was occasionally frustrating when we were younger, but a liability now that he was my employee.

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He pretty much rejected anyone in authority, and he rejected constructive criticism.

I had to lay him off when my business slowed. When I told him that I was laying him off, he became cynical and blamed me personally. He felt it was all my fault, not his. He felt I’d failed him as a friend and an employer. His words really stung.

Four years after I fired him, I learned that my friend had stayed unemployed all four years. That wasn’t my fault. Even though there were jobs to be had, and he was smart and able to do physical work, he rejected getting a job anywhere. He had even been extended job offers, and he turned them down.

Lessons learned

Many of the lessons you learn running your own business are learned the hard way. One of the toughest is finding out what you can and can’t control with the people that you employ.

All of the people mentioned in these stories were smart, capable people who were simply unable or unwilling to change. I spent a lot of time trying get around that, providing tools and options and incentives, but, in the end, I couldn’t make them do it.

The moral of this story is not to stop trying to empower or incentivize your employees. A good employer always pushes and rewards the people in his employ.

However, you should always strive to find the clear dividing line between what you can control, and what you can’t. The sooner you can spot that line, the better off you and your employees will be.