The Disconnect Between Knowing and Doing

Image: The Disconnect Between Knowing and Doing

This week in an advisory team session where we are developing some new content for sales leaders, we had a detailed discussion about why some managers and leaders don’t execute on the things they know they need to do to be most successful and to drive performance. Often we experience a gap between knowing and doing.  Rationally we understand the changes we need to make or want to make or are required to make, but we fall short when it’s time to actually do it.  Why?

Reasons We Don’t Execute

In our group discussion we uncovered several reasons that leaders don’t do what they need to do to be high performing, even when there are expectations of improvement by senior leaders.  These obstacles include:

  • Not understanding operationally how to implement changes
  • Not being intrinsically motivated to change
  • Not experiencing consequences or rewards for improving
  • Fear of change
  • Believing that continued success will occur with the same traditional approach
  • Resistance to change
  • Not self identifying with the need to improve

When leaders lack the drive to do what is needed and expected of them, there is fundamentally a performance problem. However, many organizations are not prepared to address these issues with long standing ‘stars’ who have a great reputation in the organization.

As departments shift from focusing on the what to the how, senior leaders are increasingly interested in evaluating not just the targets achieved (sales, profitably, revenue etc) but also if their leaders are demonstrating the right people leadership skills when achieving results.  This shift is sending a clear message to leaders that they need to be more disciplined in how they lead their teams and can’t just rest on their laurels of past performance.

How they motivate, engage and lead their teams is as important, or more important, than the results that are achieved.

Tapping Into Motivation

The reality is that it’s difficult to motivate a leader (or anyone for that matter) if they don’t want to change.  If there is not a robust performance management system or an organizational will to enforce the changes expected, then some leaders will just coast along.  It doesn’t mean they won’t hit their targets or that their teams won’t be high performing, but ultimately their results won’t be as stellar as they could be.

There are 2 types of motivation – intrinsic and extrinsic.

In our book Upgrade Now: 9 Advanced Leadership Skills we explore the concepts of extrinsic and intrinsic motivators. At a high level, extrinsic rewards are:

  • “Carrots” such as money, bonuses, trips, gifts, etc. that are used to drive performance towards a stated goal
  • Based on the belief that conditional recognition is the best way to achieve results and retain employees
  • Criticized for being narrow in focus and yielding only short-term results

Intrinsic rewards are when an employee feels joy, engagement and empowerment from being able to perform in their role at a high level. Intrinsic motivation consists of 3 elements:

  1. Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives
  2. Mastery – the desire to continually improve at something that matters
  3. Purpose – to do things for a purpose this is larger than oneself

These rewards influence employees’ enjoyment, satisfaction and engagement and are intangible such as growth on the job, self-esteem and a sense of contribution.

Those that thrive off of extrinsic rewards (which we all do to some extent, which is why we get paid to go to work) need to receive better rewards to entice them to strive to higher levels.  The employees and leaders that are intrinsically motivated are the ones who quickly shift from learning a new skill to implement it. They don’t do this because they ‘have to,’ but because it will help them achieve mastery faster in the new environment; help them gain a greater sense of purpose in their work; and will create opportunities for them to be more autonomous because senior leaders will trust them.

How to Close the Knowing / Doing Gap

The ability to transition from knowing what to do and actually doing it separates those who thrive from those that simply just ‘get by’. The way to close the gap is to practice discipline. A disciplined approach with a clear plan for what to do, when to do it, and how to do it, is required for improvement.  This is true for all changes and all improvements made in our professional lives and personal lives. Personally if we want to save more money, become healthier or have a better relationship with our family, we need to put a plan in place and then do what is required to be successful.  The same is true of leadership skills. However, This can be difficult for leaders because:

  • They are already overwhelmed with lots of tasks
  • The work environment doesn’t support the changes necessary
  • There is a lack of time to implement new approaches
  • There is resistance to delegating tasks
  • They aren’t measured or rewarded for executing their plan
  • They don’t receive the support, guidance or coaching on how to consistently execute

In Jim Collin’s book Great by Choice, he writes about how organizations and leaders achieve discipline through a 20 mile march (or in Canada 32.19km).  He tells the story of two explorers who were racing towards an endpoint.  One would walk as much as he could one day but might need to rest more the next. He would also decide to wait out a bad storm on another day if he had progressed a lot the day before.  The second explorer walked 20 miles every day, consistently, no matter what the conditions were, regardless if he felt tired or not.  He reached the finish line first. The books states that a 20 mile march is about:

o   Achieving performance markers with great consistency over a long period of time

o   Having concrete, clear and rigorously pursued performance mechanisms that keep you on track

o   Imposing 2 types of constraints:

  • Unwavering commitment to high performance in difficult conditions
  • Holding back in good conditions

The benefits of this approach are it:

  • Builds confidence that you can achieve results in adverse circumstances
  • Reduces the likelihood of catastrophic results when you face turbulent times because you remain consistent
  • Helps exert self-control in an out-of-control market

According to Collins, “accomplishing a 20 Mile March, consistently…builds confidence…. reinforces that we are ultimately responsible for improving performance. We never blame circumstance; we never blame the environment.”

You can watch a full book review here:

When we struggle with how to execute on what we know we should be doing as leaders, we need to identify what is holding us back, what will motivate us to make the necessary changes and then build a plan and execute on it with discipline.  It sounds simple, but it’s not…but the results are worth the effort.


Giselle Kovary

As president and co-founder of n-gen People Performance Inc., Giselle is dedicated to building strategies and programs that target, motivate and engage a multigenerational workforce. She is a sought after resource to industry leaders, having worked with 18 of the top Fortune 500 companies. Over 60,000 people globally have experienced an n-gen workshop or presentation. She has devoted more than fifteen years to researching the impact that generational differences have on organizational performance. Giselle has co-authored two books: Loyalty Unplugged: How to Get, Keep & Grow All Four Generations and Upgrade Now: 9 Advanced Leadership Skills. She has a Master’s degree in communication studies from the University of Windsor.

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