What do you mean "you can't"?

Every now and then I come across a situation where a person gets asked to do something, usually a work assignment, and he replies resolutely: "I can't". The voice inevitably conveys the lack of desire for the task. But what on earth you mean you can't???
Ability to do something is an interesting factor in human behavior. At worst, it goes like this: Unless you think you can X really well, you can't X. Not at all. If you're asked to X, you refuse. Well then, if you think you can X rather well, you're insanely smug about it. At this point, your skills aren't at the level of your bragging. If you spend some time with people who really know X, you probably degrade to the level of not being able to X at all.
Most of the people aren't really that bad, but surprisingly many make themselves look like clowns by making foolish statements on their abilities (or lack of them). But what's worse, people who stop at their "I can't" send out a really negative signal.
A book called The 12 Simple Secrets of Microsoft Management describes quite a few interesting management aspects from the Microsoft world. One of the key points is about recruiting smart people. There's an interesting paragraph on job interviews:
"The questions also search to see if the candidate can think. One of the old favorites at Microsoft was to ask how many gas stations there are in the United States. The interesting part was not the final answer, but how people went about solving it. Some candidates would give this question only 30 seconds of thought and then say they didn

September 6, 2004 В· Jouni Heikniemi В· One Comment
Posted in: General

One Response

  1. Janne Pikkarainen - September 12, 2004

    I can't remember ;) when was the last time I answered someone "I can't", when it comes to work-related tasks.
    On the other hand, our time frames are usually quite flexible, so I really have the time to learn about something new whenever I have to. And anyway I'm nowadays trying to think one step forwards before doing anything: "If I do X, can it scale up / can it be administered"…
    But frankly I don't know how I would behave if the time frame would be very tight and at the same time the result should be good enough for some very mission-critical environments. Probably I wouldn't say "I can't", but maybe "Yes, but I need some help with this…" or "Yes, if someone else can do Y for me…"