Jim Davis, Ed.M., MA, RSCC

Leaders elevate the performance of their teams. They are mentors, motivators, and guides.

For these Sherpas of professional purpose, there are few things more frustrating than an employee who veers from the path. We have had the privilege of bearing witness to hundreds (if not thousands) of these interactions.

“He just doesn’t get it,” a committee leader might say, since she has “shown [the employee] 1,000 times and he still can’t close the deal!” 

When employees do not follow the path a leader has set out for them, it can be infuriating – and if it goes on long enough, it is disheartening for all parties. In these moments, leaders might benefit from a framework that has served us well over the years.

Whether it is a team workshop, in-depth consultation, or our own meetings, we return to a simple formula: filter the situation through U.M.A., which stands for Understanding, Motivation, and Access. [fig. 1]

Because the truth is, there is no such thing as an “uncoachable” employee. There are only the employees we quit coaching.

Hiring is a skill, of course, but rarely do people make it through the door without the potential to succeed – development is what separates good from great. It’s a process. The U.M.A. framework makes sure people don’t get stuck. This is especially important in a constantly evolving business landscape with emphasis shifting to new skills (like improvisation). With such a dynamic landscape, more than ever, leaders will take approaches into their workplaces, rather than strict scripts of evaluation. Check out the UMA framework (below). In this article, we will focus on Understanding, the first and most critical component.

“The truth is, there is no such thing as an “uncoachable” employee. There are only the employees we quit coaching.” Use the UMA Framework for self and employee development.



How often do members of an organization hide their ignorance so as to not feel judged by their peers? The answer: all the time. 

Whether it is in a committee meeting, a performance review, or around the proverbial water cooler, the question “do you understand?” makes people nod their heads, even if they don’t, or only kinda sorta get it. When the leader asks if there are any questions, only the bravest of the bunch might tentatively raise a hand.

In fact, it is their uncertainty, their lack of understanding, that fuels the smile and nod response.

Robert Cialdini is a pioneer of social proof theory, which suggests that humans imitate behaviors seen in peers during moments of uncertainty in efforts of self-preservation. No one wants to feel like the only one who doesn’t understand the leader’s directive.

The higher-order concept a leader might want to consider is whether or not they have created a culture where questions, accountability, and group feedback are encouraged. Even when a leader is building a growth-based culture, the U.M.A. framework can regularly be of service.

There is a big difference between memorizing sales scripts and understanding one’s role on a team. If there is something missing in the employee’s performance, if it just doesn’t seem to be “clicking,” the leader should slow down and ask questions to identify potential gaps in understanding.

We return to three key questions:

  • Does an employee know what they are supposed to do? (assignment)
  • Does an employee understand context and contributing factors? (situation)
  • Does an employee understand how their role fits in to the group’s purpose? (alignment)

It is the leader’s job to be sure her people have a thorough understanding of assignment, situation, and alignment. In the absence of that understanding, we find frustration and sub-par results.

The Linebacker

Sports metaphors have served us well in the corporate setting.

Using a football linebacker as an example. The linebacker’s assignment includes knowing what defensive formation was called and how he is supposed to line up. In the called defense, he will need to know his “read key,” or the player(s) he is supposed to read once the ball is snapped. If he doesn’t know the formation, where to line up, or what to look at, then there is an immediate and obvious gap in understanding. 

When this gap in understanding is identified, a coach should have the patience to slow down and bridge the gap. Too often, whether it is the board room or the football field, leaders get caught up in the desire to go fast, get more reps, and advance in the playbook. Competitive people have goals, after all.

“It is the leader’s job to be sure her people have a thorough understanding of assignment, situation, and alignment. In the absence of that understanding, we find frustration and sub-par results.” The UMA Framework can help.

Slow it down. Get it right. Once a linebacker has his assignments down, he will then be asked to understand situations. Often, this will occur in the form of conditional assessments (if/then propositions). For example, if the offensive guard (the linebacker’s “read key”) pass-sets, then the linebacker should drop to cover the pass zone to which he has been assigned. If the guard down blocks on a run play, then the linebacker will fill his assigned gap. This understanding takes both logical understanding of the conditions and plenty of repetition. It is hard to build this level of understanding without experience.

What are the conditional propositions of a sales call, or in communication with third party logistics? This has to be made clear.

The employee (the linebacker, in this case) should also understand how his job benefits the team. Whether it is in a walk-through session or in the film room, leaders should be explicit about how their piece helps complete the puzzle.

The linebacker might not make the tackle by filling the backside A-gap, which makes it hard for him to understand why he is doing it… but if we help him understand that as each player on the defensive front fills their respective gap then there is nowhere for the offense to run the ball, and how that ultimately benefits the team, then we improve the likelihood of him continually doing his job.

Next Steps

Start asking questions. Be on the lookout for gaps in understanding.

An effective leader will ask these questions routinely. They will work to confirm an employee’s level of understanding on each level, taking into account the fact that they will learn at different speeds – just like in a classroom. A school would never throw 20 random people into a math classroom and expect them to all read on the same level. That holds true for companies as well.

Albert Einstein once said, “if I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions,” recognizing that how one defines a problem precludes their ability to solve it.

If you think your employees “just don’t get it,” you might be right. But it might also be worth taking a closer look. There might be a small gap in understanding that limits their motivation and productivity. And if you define the problem right, it might not be all that difficult to solve.

James (Jim) Davis works with teams and individuals on leadership development, culture enhancement, and performance psychology. He studied Human Development and Psychology at Harvard University and is a sought-after speaker, author, and coach. In 2020 he received US Marine Corps’ ‘Excellence in Leadership Award’. To work with Jim, CLICK HERE.

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