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The “Gun to the Head” Test

I freely acknowledge that many of the ideas I present in these articles I learned from Dr. Robert F. Mager, the “father” of the field of Performance Improvement. What I particularly like about his approach is that, while being immensely thorough and professional, it is practical, matter-of-fact and never “ivory tower academic” (he has a Ph.D. in psychology but he never lets it get in the way).

One of my favourite Mager concepts is the “Gun to the Head” Test. Before you start wondering how you’ll ever get that past HR, let me emphasise that this is a thought experiment. No actual firearms are involved.

There will be people in your organisation who don’t actually do what you want them to do. Every organisation has them. The question is: Would they do what they should do if you were to hold a gun to their head and threaten to pull the trigger unless they perform as required? Essentially you’re asking whether they could do it if their lives depended on it.

Can’t do, or won’t do?

While many of these people would now miraculously start behaving in the desired manner, there will be others who still wouldn’t be able to do so, no matter how much they might want to (and a gun to the head really boosts desire to comply). So the gun to the head has the effect of segregating the “don’t do” people into “can’t do” and “won’t do.”

Not being able to perform, even with a gun to the head, indicates that we have a skills deficit. If there’s a skills deficit, training is the appropriate solution. And this is the only reason to use training. Typically, though, in business we find training being used (ineffectively) as a “solution” for much more than just skills deficits.

Training or coaching?

In recent years, training has fallen out of favour in many organisations and contexts and been replaced with coaching. In some cases, it’s just a relabelling (actually mislabelling) exercise; the training that’s delivered remains the same but it now gets called “coaching.” But, in other cases, training is regarded as old-fashioned and we see a wholesale switch over to new-fangled coaching. Succumbing to such dogma is, as usual with any dogma, a big mistake.

We may find that a strong belief in, and preference for, coaching becomes an excuse for not dealing with a skills deficit. Coaching isn’t training. If people don’t have the skills, you cannot “coach” skills, just as you cannot “train” behaviour.

Coaching is all about asking intelligent questions and helping clients to find their own solutions.

“Clients already have all the resources they need; they just need help to access them” is a common mantra. And, I would say, a naïve belief and a preposterous assertion. It’s the all resources bit that’s ridiculous. Yes, they may well have underutilised resources, but sometimes they just haven’t got what they need.

If you were to hold a gun to my head and insist that I speak in Hungarian, I wouldn’t be able to do it; I don’t speak Hungarian. Not a word. I simply don’t possess that resource. For me that’s a “can’t do.”

You could coach me until you’re blue in the face, asking typical coaching questions like, “How would you benefit from speaking Hungarian?” (Err, I wouldn’t get shot) or “How do you think you would say, ‘Please put that gun down’ in Hungarian?”

It wouldn’t do me any good. What I need is training. I need someone who can speak Hungarian to teach me Hungarian.

On the other hand, if I am able to do something but I don’t do it, then I present a behavioural problem: I choose not to do it. That’s a “won’t do.”

Now, if the reason for my choice is primarily attitudinal (such as I just don’t give a damn), coaching may be an appropriate intervention.

But what if I choose not to do it because I am rewarded for not doing it or punished for doing it? In that case, the system within which I function is out of kilter with the organisation’s objectives or rules. In which case, we need to fix the system (see Be systemic on page 34 of my Special Report).

The Gun to the Head Test applied to driving

Let’s assume that your business has a rule that employees must comply with all traffic laws including speed limits and, by implication, that noncompliance is a disciplinary matter. Yet you have drivers who collect speeding convictions or (if you have vehicle telemetry) drivers whose data indicate that their speed regularly exceeds limits.

If you were to apply the Gun to the Head Test (“If you break a speed limit, I’ll pull the trigger”), how many of these drivers known to break speed limits would prove to be incapable of controlling their speed to stay within speed limits? Probably none (you would have to question the overall competence and suitability for driving roles of any exceptions).

Yet these are the drivers who are classified as “violators” (which they are) and, as such, are typically regarded as “high risk” and put into a training programme. But, as I’ve pointed out, if skill is not the issue, training is useless.

If the drivers are capable of complying with speed limits but don’t do so, you have to find out why. With a bit of detective work you may discover that drivers feel they’re being forced to comply with unrealistic job specifications or working conditions—poor scheduling is often the culprit.

Or you may find that drivers are being influenced by inappropriate rewards or punishments, which may exist as contradictions within the system or in the form of “unofficial” management behaviours. Perhaps drivers are being rewarded for minimising travelling time, either financially or in positive employee performance reviews. Conversely, you may find that following the rules (i.e. driving legally) attracts criticism from superiors and unfair comparison with those who choose to be violators.

If such findings are made, there’s clearly a mismatch between the organisation’s stated rules and the policies or procedures that govern actual behaviour within the organisation. The remedy lies in changing the latter. Now this may involve coaching—not for the drivers but rather for the managers who are creating unrealistic job descriptions or schedules, or applying these inappropriate rewards and punishments.

If you can find no evidence of any external pressures or inducements on drivers to break speed limits, then it comes down to drivers’ individual choice of behaviour. Now it’s a matter of influencing change in their behaviour, which might involve coaching, strengthening rewards and punishments in alignment with the company’s rules and/or technological interventions. Or removing such unsuitable people from driving roles.

The big benefit of applying the Gun to the Head Test

The Gun to the Head Test is one of those quick and easy “What if…?” devices that can make a valuable contribution to the process of deciding how to proceed with any programme of improvement. It can save an enormous amount of wasted time and money by enabling you to divide “don’t do” into “can’t do” and “won’t do.”

In the field of driver behaviour/fleet safety we see so many examples of businesses following a path that leads nowhere. The most common mistake is the assumption that drivers can’t behave in a particular way, and so training is applied as a panacea. In reality, most performance issues come down to “won’t do” choices. Then it’s a matter of discovering the reasons for those choices and using whatever methods are best suited to changing systems, circumstances, influences and/or attitudes.

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