There are 3 primary reasons why one human may be more effective than another in a given work situation.

Caring - All things being equal, somebody who cares more about a problem / product will generally be more effective1. Caring can range from “startup founder” level obsession to being completely checked out, and effectiveness will vary on that spectrum.

Capacity - The amount of time and mental resources a team member can bring to a problem matters and will vary over time. Illness, stress, a busy personal season or competing work priorities can reduce this temporarily for anyone. Some people will have longer term lower capacity than others due to factors like life circumstances, health, and outside of work commitments.

Leverage - People’s skills, experiences, tendencies, relationships and abilities can allow them to be disproportionately effective or ineffective in different situations. Some of this is situational: “he wrote that library and knows all the details”, “she is an expert on this technology”, “he has admin privileges on this system”, “she knows the tech lead on that team”. Other factors like communication ability, broad technical experience, or credibility within an org tend to persist across problems.

When trying to understand why somebody is more or less effective than [their peers | what you expected | your own performance], it is useful to pull out this model2. Trying to help somebody who is capacity constrained level up their skills likely won’t move the needle. On the other hand, if you have team members who have the skills but lack capacity or don’t care about their work, there may be an opportunity to help address those underlying challenges and get a better outcome. Similarly if you’re trying to “outwork” your way to a promotion while you see peers who seem to be doing less than you getting better outcomes, its worth looking into what leverage they might have (skills, access, relationships) that are helping them be more efficient.

A caveat: be careful not to prejudge caring vs capacity issues in others. It can be difficult to tell whether somebody seems disengaged because they don’t care, or because they don’t have capacity to care. Best to work through that with them before solutioning.

  1. Caveat – if the level of care for a sub-section of a product/problem/org is disproportionate to the business value, this can become a negative. Think of an employee who spends their time improving line-level code quality of a feature that the team intends to deprecate. ↩︎

  2. I don’t recommend it for hiring however – trying to judge “caring” can tend toward unconscious biases, and most long term capacity issues fall under protected categories / more explicit biases. Better to focus on proven previous effectiveness and testable “leverages” (tech/people skills / knowledge) ↩︎