Figure Out What People Want to Do, Not What They’re Willing to Do


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People, even incredibly skilled individuals, will perform much better if they are not only willing to do a task, but want to do it.

What People Want

Figuring out what people want to do can be difficult. In the workplace, employees are not likely to let you know what they want to do. They are much more likely to let you know what they’re willing to do. That may be a good job security strategy, but they will never be fulfilled at work with that mentality.

When I first began this task at my company, I had a meeting with the marketing team to do an initial discovery around which tasks interested people. As I pointed to a task, people were giving me the same responses: Yeah, I can do that. I’m willing to do that. I’ll take that on. That’s something that I can do.

I had to stop and explain, “Okay, I get that. I know you guys are all good people who are willing to take on whatever needs to be done because you believe in the purpose, but that doesn’t help me here. What do you want to do? Also, what do you not want to do?”

Once they understood what I was asking from them, people began speaking up. “Well, you know, actually I don’t like to work on video editing.” “Perfect,” I said, “This is a start.”

Now I had a decision to make. I could continue making this person do a task I knew wasn’t fulfilling them. This would mean the employee will always be wanting to do something else, maybe somewhere else. Instead, I could discover what they wanted to do.

Getting the Truth Out of People

People typically won’t express interest in a task that someone else is already doing, especially if they’re doing it really well. They’ll be afraid that people might dismiss them or they might be afraid that the person who’s already doing it will feel threatened, like they’re trying to take their job away from them.

But guess what? The person doing that task might actually welcome the opportunity to have that person learn it. Maybe this person has always wanted to mentor someone and has never had the chance because no one else wanted to learn the job. Or maybe this person is sick of doing this particular task and would really like a shot at something else. People are typically not going to volunteer this kind of information, which is why you will have to make your expectations clear: you really want to know what they want to do!

Empowering your people to express tasks they want to do is helpful because there are probably people who would love to do something but have been afraid to speak up. Someone might say, “I’ve always wanted to learn video editing. Do you think this is a task I could have if someone would teach it to me?”

This is an exciting moment, so pay attention. One of your people has just told you they really don’t like what they’re doing, yet there is someone else in the room who would love to take over the task. This is your cue.

This Is Personal

You’re learning about everyone’s soft skills and the tasks they would like to take on. You’re stepping them through the connection between each task and purpose, and ensuring they fully understand how what they want to do aligns with your company’s purpose. The next task for you is to begin allocating resources—who does what.

This didn’t happen in one day and may not happen in one month. It’s a discovery and an education process that could take many conversations to get right. You might need to speak with one individual several times to get them to open up about what they want to do and why.

Put yourself in their place for a moment to understand why they may not want to tell you about their interests. Right now, they have a job. They fill a role and have tasks they have proven they can do. Talking to you, the leader, about this other task they might rather be doing is risky. What if you don’t want them to do that task? What if you don’t have anyone in place to take over the tasks they’re doing now? What if you misunderstand them and think they’re just unhappy working in the company? Anything they tell you beyond “I love what I do and here is what else I’m willing to do” could be seen as a huge risk in their eyes.

You must continuously develop a trusting relationship with your people and help them understand your intentions—to help them feel fulfilled, instead of the traditional authority so many leaders adopt. Your intent is to ensure their work aligns with their soft skills and the company’s purpose so that they’re happy. Make these conversations a safe place for your people to open up and they will talk, but it may take more than one conversation.

You’re not asking them if they really want to be a ballerina or a cowboy when they grow up. You’re figuring out which of the tasks that you’ve identified and prioritized together is a good fit for what excites them. You’re letting them know you want them to have the chance to learn the task and contribute to the purpose in the process.

By taking the time to figure out what your people want to do, you’ll find the best person for each role on your team and make your employees more fulfilled in the process.

Chris Meroff
Chris Meroff has made a career of testing new leadership ideas to see what works—and what doesn’t—in service-oriented leadership. His business, Alignment Leadership Consulting, exists to teach leaders how they can boldly pursue a workplace culture that prioritizes employee fulfillment. You can learn more at, or pick up a copy of his new book, Align: Four Simple Steps for Leaders to Create Employee Fulfillment Through Alignment Leadership.


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