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How to Overcome a Can’t-Do Attitude in You Team

Counterintuitive advice on how to break dysfunctional patterns and re-write the cultural algorithms that stall your progress.


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Aga Bajer

3 years ago | 9 min read

If you’ve ever tried to build something awesome with a group of people, chances are you’ve also had the following experience at some point:

You rush to build your product, go to market, grow further and faster, overcome some seemingly insurmountable challenge. Whatever it is — you know in your heart of hearts that you can do it.

But suddenly… you bump against a barrier you didn’t anticipate.

Your team tells you:

“This can’t be done.”

When it happens for the first time, it can stop you in your tracks and knock the wind out of you.

“Of course it can be done!” — you want to scream. But instead, you choose to be civil. You convince, cajole and plead. When that doesn’t work, you do what you are best at — you find the solution yourself. Then, you push the team even harder to implement it.

Reenact this scenario on a few more occasions, and suddenly you find yourself trapped in an infuriating pattern:

You push. They push back. So you push harder still.

And it starts driving you crazy!

How you might be enabling behaviors that drive you nuts

Patterns like the one above are very common in the workplace. I call them cultural algorithms.

When you think of an algorithm, you are probably envisioning a computer. But algorithms are much older than computers, and our daily lives have been full of them for centuries.

An algorithm is basically a sequence of steps that we follow. When you cook a dish from a recipe, you’re following an algorithm. When you separate your clothes into colors and whites before washing them, you follow an algorithm. When people push back when you push — and when you push harder when they push back — you follow an algorithm.

Cultural algorithms form through repeated experiences. They are reinforced by social learning. Something happens (action), we react to it in a certain way (reaction) — it seems to work (kinda) — so we keep repeating the pattern. It becomes like a dance where each step is triggered by the previous one.

By participating in a specific “choreography,” people are enabling and reinforcing the pattern.

Cultural algorithms are not always bad. They are an integral part of any team culture, making people behave in predictable ways. They can be extremely useful when you want speed, consistency, and reliability.

Breaking a pattern and rewriting a cultural algorithm

Sometimes the patterns that govern interactions within your team get dysfunctional. They keep you locked in a loop of action-reaction that doesn’t really serve anyone.

Thankfully, there is a way to break out of this vicious cycle. You can disrupt any pattern and rewrite any algorithm. But, there is a catch — it all starts with you — and you will have to be the one to make the first step.

The first step to disrupting any pattern is to notice it and document it.

What is the sequence of steps you seem to be playing out on repeat? Write them down.

To break a pattern, you need to skip or replace a part of the existing algorithm.

Here are three powerful ways to break the pattern that leads to a can’t do attitude. They will help you move your team from “can’t do” to “we’ll give it our best shot”.

1. Listen to people’s concerns

Do you know why your team members believe that this can’t be done? There could be a very good reason.

Sometimes “can’t do” means exactly what it says on the tin— it really can’t be done. Not yet. Not in this context. Not with the technology that’s available right now. Or, more importantly — not if you want to stick to your values and be in integrity.

Here is an example. When Martin Winterkorn had taken Volkswagen’ helm in 2007, he’d set an ambitious goal: to triple the company’s US sales within ten years. A key element in his strategy was the so-called clean diesel vehicle. But the clean vehicles were not so clean after all.

They produced so much nitrous oxide that it was impossible for them to pass the United States environmental regulations. A VW engineer Wolfgang Hatz admitted in 2007: “The CARB [California Air Resources Board] is not realistic. We can do quite a bit, and we will do quite a bit. But impossible we cannot do.”

When the VW team pushed back on their CEO’s plans, he pushed harder.

He said:

“I don’t want to hear about problems, I want solutions.”

His engineers complied. They found a solution. There was just one problem — it was illegal. You know the rest of the story. In a nutshell, Winterkorn was charged with fraud and conspiracy. As of 1 June 2020, the scandal had cost VW $33.3 billion in fines, penalties, financial settlements, and buyback costs.

The “bring me solutions instead of problems” approach that Winterkorn adopted in VW is popular management advice. But be careful — it can have serious consequences. Your people might shut down. It may breed a culture of intimidation. It can even prevent some problems from surfacing altogether.

You don’t want that to happen on your team. So here is what you can do.

Disrupting the pattern and rewriting the algorithm

Don’t follow your knee-jerk reaction. Don’t push. Do something different instead:

Allow people to voice their concerns, listen, and then ask: “What’s safe to try?”

Remember, you need to skip or replace a part of the existing algorithm to break the pattern.

In the case of a “can’t-do” attitude, you’ll need to skip the initial step. Since you normally push — this time — don’t. Do something different instead.

Listening is a really good start.

Steven Price, a fellow writer, suggests saying:

“Help me understand the things that cause you to doubt the goal.”

It’s powerful to ask for help as a leader, instead of demanding answers from others. By doing it you also create a space for your team members to share and learn more about the problem.

Your job is to listen and help them separate facts from assumptions that need to be tested. When all the concerns have been aired, ask our team: “What would be safe to try?”

You don’t need to have a perfect solution; you just need something that you can experiment with.

2. Get your team’s buy-in

Sometimes teams have a “can’t do” attitude because they were not part of the decision making process.

When I interviewed James McAuley, the Founder, and CEO of Encore, he told me why he believes his company was able to pivot so successfully during the pandemic. Encore, a platform that connects musicians with clients interested in live music events, initially lost almost all of its revenue due to social distancing rules.

But they were able to recover thanks to an ingenious idea of personalized musical messages that allow customers to book a musician and create a customized music video for a relative or a friend. McAulay said:

“We’ve been able to do what we did because the idea came from the team, it wasn’t a mandate coming from the company’s leadership.”

So ask yourself:

  • Are people on board with what I’m trying to do here?
  • Have they been involved or consulted during the decision making process?

Having buy-in from the people who are going to execute can be the difference between success and failure.

Disrupting the pattern and rewriting the algorithm

You will feel challenged, but don’t push. Remember, to break the pattern, you need to do something different from what you’d do habitually. In this case:

Engage people in idea generation and decision making.

It’s natural that when people are given limited opportunities to exercise their imagination, they will have very few ideas. You can help change that.

Disrupt the pattern by sharing a challenge that you are facing with your team and asking them for their ideas. You might be surprised by the quality of the solutions you get.

There is a lot to gain by doing this.

First, you increase the likelihood of making better decisions when you involve your team in the process. Research shows that diversity leads to better decision-making. By crowdsourcing ideas from your team, you enhance creativity and gain a fresh perspective on the problem.

Secondly, you demonstrate that you trust their judgment and value their opinions. This builds employee engagement. And yes, you need your team to be engaged. According to Gallup highly engaged employees produce significantly better outcomes, are more likely to stay with your company for longer, and experience less burn-out.

Plus, when you engage your team, you give yourself an opportunity to uncover your own blindspots. If you feel tempted to think: “I don’t have blindspots!” — don’t.

If you are human, you do. Organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich, discovered that 95 percent of people think they’re self-aware, but only 10 to 15 percent actually are. The implications of this are pretty clear — if you’re making most of your decision by yourself, there’s likely a bunch of data that you are missing.

3. Be a role model of a can-do attitude

Have you ever said something along these lines to a team member who came to you with an idea?

“This is not our priority right now.”

“Legal would never approve this.”

“This is not what our customers want from us.”

“We don’t have the budget for this.”

“There’s a lot of downsides.”

Whatever you said, it probably felt like a valid objection at the time. But if you do it often enough, you are embodying a “can’t-do” mindset yourself and modeling the very behavior you want to eliminate: the pushback.

When you push back on your team members' ideas, you trigger a different algorithm. There won’t be: “Push, push back, push harder” because when the boss pushes back, people usually give up. They just stop coming up with ideas. What you are likely to get is the following pattern:

“A pitch. A pushback. No pitch.”

Disrupting the pattern and rewriting the algorithm

There will be many occasions when you will want to jump in with objections. But if you want to see more of the “can-do” attitude in your team, you need to be the paragon of it yourself. To do that, you need to replace the pushback in the pattern above with something that’s more constructive. So do this instead:

Be curious. Push yourself to stay curious for a little bit longer than feels comfortable.

It’s important to do this because research shows that leaders strongly shape their followers' behaviors — people watch you in situations they find themselves in and replicate your behaviors. When you push back, they feel justified to push back, too. This kills innovation.

Eventually, people will stop sharing their ideas and channeling their creative energy outside of work. Which is exactly what you don’t want to happen.

So what should you do the next time a team member comes to you with an idea? Ask them a bunch of questions. Here are a few examples:

  • What problem does your idea solve?
  • What benefits does this solution have?
  • Who will benefit from it?
  • What are the drawbacks?
  • How would you overcome them?
  • What would make it even better?

And finally, the question that helps you to move from lip service to action and allows your team to experiment and implement their own ideas:

What would be safe to try?

In summary

When a group of people works together, cultural algorithms such as: “push, push back, push harder”, or “pitch, push back, no pitch” are sure to form sooner or later.

One of the most important jobs that you have as a leader is to spot disfunctional patterns and rewrite the algorithms that don’t serve you.

And while you can’t control other people’s behavior, you certainly have a choice when it comes to your own actions. The most reliable way to disrupt a dysfunctional pattern and rewrite a cultural algorithm is to start with yourself.

So finally, here are a few questions you can use to coach yourself and break any pattern that drives you crazy:

  • How have I been complicit in creating this pattern that I’m noticing?
  • What has my role been in this?
  • How can I show up in a way that disrupts the pattern and rewrites the algorithm next time?

If you liked this article and want to start working on your company culture, you can download my FREE Guide to Creating a Culture Playbook.

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Aga Bajer

I write about how to unlock the power of your company culture. A Culture Strategist + The CultureLab Podcast Host — agabajer.com/podcast


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