What You Need To Know About Lack Of Ability And Lack Of Willingness

Growing up in India in the 80s and 90s was a beautiful experience, especially during the school holidays when my parents used to take me to visit all my cousins. There would be a lot of family bonding, playing, food, laughter, quarrels over no-balls and runouts, and tales of wisdom from the grand-parents. Sometimes I would find my cousins having a nap and try to wake them up, so that I would have someone to play with. Sometimes, no matter how hard I tried they would not wake up. My grandmother once told me not to bother because “you can wake up someone who is sleeping, but not someone who is pretending to sleep”. As a child it did not mean much beyond its literal  meaning, but as a grown-up, the profundity of that statement makes me wish I had more time with her.

The point I am trying to make here is, to be successful we need two qualities within us:

  1. The ability to do things
  2. The willingness to do things

When a team is not performing as intended, the factors often boil down to one the above. Either the team is not able to deliver, or is not willing to deliver. The lack of ability is a fixable problem, but a lack of willingness is far more dangerous. The big question for you as leaders is how to determine what the issue is. I hope this post offers some pointers.


Ability is often associated with talent, qualifications, and skills, which are traits of individuals. They are also easily measurable with certificates, skills matrices, score cards, competency statements and so forth. For example, I can show you certificates saying that I have a master’s degree in Engineering and that I am a Member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. These certificates, however, offer evidence of my ability only. Ability also refers to whether or not individuals and teams are provided with the right equipment, conditions, and tools necessary to deliver as intended. Ability can be given to people and teams by giving them appropriate training and appropriate equipment and conditions.


Willingness is unfortunately is not that well understood or easily measurable, but the absence of which is the most dangerous thing you can have in your people and teams. Issues around willingness are often what people call soft issues, and talking about willingness almost never ends well. As mentioned in the above paragraph, the certificates only provide evidence of my ability, not my willingness. We cannot measure willingness directly. Also, it would be unethical to even consider willingness as an issue until all avenues around ability have been explored. What also makes willingness dangerous is that it is always the lack of intent and desire, whereas ability can be attributed to numerous factors, all of which can be fixed. So, going back to my grandmother’s words, how do you wake up someone pretending to sleep?

So, my three pointers for you today are:

  1. Lack of performance is due to ability or willingness
  2. Ability issues can be fixed, but willingness issues almost always cannot be fixed
  3. You must explore all avenues around ability before considering willingness

One thought on “What You Need To Know About Lack Of Ability And Lack Of Willingness

  1. Raam a very good blog that took me back to my childhood and I remember watching my dad managing as a regional manager of a tobacco company..he was only 5th grade pass but he gave me more that what I got at a business school MBA.

    It will be good to see your next blog focusing on how do you wake up someone pretending to sleep?

    Stay safe, Mayank

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