One of the things teachers often say to the parents of struggling kids is, “Johnny just needs to apply himself.” The parents often walk away agreeing that, in fact, Johnny does need to apply himself and they tell him as much when they get home. While it may sound like a utilitarian comment, it is far from clear what action is required in “applying” oneself—therefore, nothing changes. We can only imagine the number of kids who walk away rolling their eyes thinking, “Yeah, right.”

In business, the phrases we’ve heard executives say to struggling team members are, “you need to lead this effort” or “this is your baby, get moving” or “go figure this out and bring me a plan.” Of course, as with parenting, these kinds of phrases only make sense when you are working with someone who has the skills to translate your comments into action. 

Take a moment to ask yourself if you have said something along these lines to someone who continues to frustrate you. Chances are they don’t have the skills to translate your message into action. You may as well be saying, “Apply yourself!”

To determine if you are essentially saying, “apply yourself,” think about the kinds of direction you have provided. Have you defined your 3 – 5 key expectations or rules? Do they understand the overarching expectations of their specific role? If the answers are yes but you are still frustrated with their performance, then it’s time to consider whether you are giving them the level of direction and coaching they require.

Think about the people who you feel frustrated by. Reflect on the various conversations you have had with them, the times you have observed them in meetings, and the way they show up on projects. If they seem to have the skills and understanding that you are hoping for in your interactions, then talk with them about bringing those skills to the efforts that require action.

If not, consider that they may not know how to take the steps you are waiting for them to take. It may be time to have a conversation with them about their inability to take action and to decide if there is a gap in their understanding of what is required, in their interest in their specific role, or if there is a gap in their skill set. Determine if training and coaching from you, someone in your organization or an external coach would be helpful to build the skills they need to succeed in the role.