Knowing versus Doing: How Leaders Can Impact Performance


HomeHome / Blog / Knowing versus Doing: How Leaders Can Impact Performance

Jan 06, 2024

Knowing versus Doing: How Leaders Can Impact Performance

Pamela Brooks-Richards, MA, CDTLF, CPPII, is a senior organizational consultant

Pamela Brooks-Richards, MA, CDTLF, CPPII, is a senior organizational consultant for Arizona State University in the Fulton Schools of Engineering and the W.P. Carey School of Business. She's also been...

Many laboratories are dealing with a shortage of workers and, often, inexperienced staff. Under stress, some leaders are struggling because they want to treat the need for a behavior change in their employees like it is a technical problem.1

Performance can be a tricky issue for many managers to deal with as there are many misconceptions about what can create positive behavior change. By knowing these misconceptions, managers are equipped to find alternate routes of fostering positive change.

"If employees are given more instruction and information, they will be able to improve!"

While people do need training and instruction, too much of it can lead to information overload and cause people to slow down, shut down, or become indecisive and confused. Rather than assigning them more reading and classes, help them prioritize what is important. Demonstrate the new behavior and have them practice in front of you and with fellow workers. Role-playing helps anchor information, and practice makes it a habit.

Knowing something and doing something are two different things, and the wrong kind of feedback rarely helps.2 You should have people break down information into micro-habits that can be incorporated into their existing routine. For example, adding a new safety procedure to an existing one is easy for someone to take on and will lead to greater consistency of adoption.

If someone seems slow to pick up, ask if they’re experiencing any confusion. They may be too embarrassed to ask. Knowing their perspective on how they are doing may help you show them how to navigate fears and roadblocks.

Consider posting a checklist with pictures/illustrations, which is easier to follow than a written guide.

"If only they cared more about this, they would have the desire to change."

It is easy to think that a person's poor performance is the result of their poor attitude. However, in his book Think Again, Adam Grant, a leading scholar in organizational psychology who studies how people find motivation and meaning, argues that a task problem should not be equated to a personal flaw. Assigning a character flaw to the person can lead to even poorer performance. When we judge someone in our mind, it reflects in our nonverbal behavior, words, and actions when working with that individual. This creates a fear response that will lead to poorer performance cycle and a resistance to trying new things.

Creating a safe environment concerns not just physical safety, but also psychological safety.

What comes across as a lack of conviction may actually be a lack of confidence, leading to the fear of making a mistake. To overcome fear and build confidence, people must be able to execute the change until they get it right without fear of being perfect on the first try. They may also need additional practice and helpful reminders until it becomes a habit.

When a person can feel successful in performing the new skill, they will build confidence and desire to execute it more often. People often don't know what is important until they have practiced, and failed, enough times to get it right, such as when learning to pipette. While not a complex process, pipetting requires skill and patience. It is important to provide a safe place where people can make mistakes and practice until they hone their skill.

"Nothing seems to motivate this individual to get better. They did once so they should be able to do it again, they must not want to."

It is a common misperception that people don't act because they are lazy or uninterested. In reality, they probably find a complete change and consistent execution hard. Acquiring a new skill takes weeks to months of continuous improvement and practice.

There is also the need for positive social influence. People will continue to practice what they see other people doing. Having mentors and peers work together can create a social culture that makes people feel included and not alone in their new efforts. Without peer enforcement, many people will either fall back on old habits or not practice what they have learned. Creating accountability partners in implementing new behaviors is a positive way to create a system that encourages practice and provides support to keep the new habit growing.

"This person seems to have an excuse for everything."

People need three things to perform at their best in a work environment: inclusive spaces that encourage dialogue (otherwise known as brave spaces), a sense of belonging and connection with the people they work with, and clear boundaries.2

Creating a safe environment concerns not just physical safety, but also psychological safety. If a person's safety is threatened, it will often lead directly to self-protection and withdrawal. When people become less aware of their environment, their ability to focus on what is important is reduced. Sometimes it is good to give the person space to reflect on an incident and ask them to think of a few ways to make things better on their own. This will help create the space in their mind for improvements.

Having mentors and peers work together can create a social culture that makes people feel included and not alone in their new efforts.

Leaders must look for the eureka or "aha!" moments, ask their team members what new ideas they had, and how they can translate those ideas into new behaviors. If leaders are not able to see it personally, they can ask for any new ideas a person may have had since the last time they were together.

Instead of focusing on bad behavior, leaders should keep the employee focused on what they can do, what is working, and what they could try differently. Someone who is defensive and creating excuses is in the wrong headspace, so asking questions can get them back into the mindset to rethink and experiment.

Understanding the myths surrounding poor performance allows leaders to find better ways of nourishing a person's internal awareness, desire, understanding, and confidence to take on new challenges. People enjoy having a good reason to change, a good story about how to change, and the time and support from peers to practice until it becomes a new habit. Create an environment where people catch each other doing things right and are rewarded for finding even better ways to carry out tasks. Such positive reinforcement will lead to performance improvement.


1. Kegan, Robert and Lahey, Lisa. Immunity to Change. Boston, Massachusetts, Harvard Business Review, 2009.

2. Buckingham, Marcus and Goodall, Ashley. Nine Lies About Work. One Thing Productions, Inc, USA, 2019.