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Capabilities and Emotions


We live in a rapidly changing world (and I’m not just talking about pandemics). In that world, capabilities, and not skills, will be a key determinant of success. Our emotions will often become a significant obstacle in our effort to cultivate those capabilities. If we’re serious about cultivating capabilities, we need to evolve our emotions and find ways to move from fear to passion.

The role of capabilities

I’ve done a lot of research on the growing importance of capabilities, summarized here and here. Everyone is talking about the need for re-skilling, but alarmingly few are even acknowledging the role of capabilities, much less focusing on them. Let’s define terms. Skills are generally abilities that have value in a specific context or environment, like how to operate a certain kind of machine in a certain type of factory – and we generally have to be trained in those skills. Capabilities, in contrast, have value in all contexts and environments and many of them are innate in all of us, including curiosity, imagination, creativity and empathy.

As we move into the Contextual Age, capabilities help us to quickly and effectively address unanticipated situations so that we can deliver increasing impact. The key to delivering meaningful impact starts with the ability to ask powerful questions based on a deep understanding of the needs of diverse stakeholders and then to imagine entirely new approaches to delivering impact and then to creatively deploy those approaches. And these same capabilities help us to quickly see the impact that is being achieved and evolve our approaches in ways that deliver ever increasing impact.

As if that weren’t enough, these capabilities also help us to develop whatever skills are required to deliver that impact. Skills are still important, but the capabilities help us to figure out what skills are most important in specific contexts. Even better, these capabilities then help us to learn the skills required.

Cultivating capabilities

So, what’s required to cultivate those capabilities? As I mentioned before, these capabilities are innate in all of us. If you don’t believe me, go to a playground and watch children 6 or 7 years old and show me one that doesn’t have the capabilities I’ve described. I use the metaphor of the human muscle to describe our capabilities. We all have them, but some of us choose to exercise them and they grow stronger. Many of us don’t exercise them and they atrophy. But, guess what? They’re still there, waiting to be exercised.

Given that, we need to focus on creating environments that will encourage people to exercise these capabilities and provide the tools to help them cultivate the capabilities. Unfortunately, most of our work environments today are hostile to these capabilities. Take curiosity. Asking questions in many work environments today is viewed as a sign of weakness – you’re supposed to know what to do. Go read the manual.

So, there’s a lot we can do to create welcoming and supportive environments for cultivating capabilities. But, there’s more.

The role of emotions

To cultivate capabilities, we need to focus on the emotions that are shaping our choices and actions. As I’ve written elsewhere, we’re living in a world where the dominant emotion is fear. What happens when we’re driven by fear? We tend not to exercise the capabilities that I’ve been describing. We’re reluctant to ask questions because it will make us look weak. We tend to shy away from being imaginative or creative because that involves taking risk. We tend to be less empathetic because our focus is on protecting ourselves, rather than trying to understand the needs of others.

So, in a world shaped by fear, our capabilities will atrophy. A vicious cycle sets into motion – the more our capabilities atrophy, the more pressure we’ll experience and the more fear will become the dominant emotion, leading us to exercise our capabilities even less. And we go into a downward spiral.

Motivating ourselves

How do we escape this downward spiral? First, we need to acknowledge our fear. Many of us are reluctant to do that because, again, it is viewed as a sign of weakness. But, until we acknowledge our fear, we’ll never see how limiting it is and we’ll never find the motivation to move beyond fear.

Once we acknowledge our fear, we need to reflect on how it reduces our motivation to exercise our capabilities and, as a result, limits our potential for growth. As we begin to see what an obstacle it has become, we can begin to explore various approaches that can help us to move forward in spite of our fear. (We’ll never eliminate our fear – the key is to find the motivation to move forward in spite of the fear.) Those approaches include evolving our personal narrative and finding the passion of the explorer that is patiently waiting to be discovered in all of us.

Motivating others

That’s what we can do for ourselves. What can we do for others? How can we motivate others to move beyond their fear?

I’ll suggest three things: framing inspiring opportunities, posing powerful questions and staging initiatives for impact.

Frame inspiring opportunities. People who live in fear are focused on threats that they see in the future. We can shift that perception by focusing attention on unprecedented and inspiring opportunities that lie ahead in our future. This builds on the paradox that I have described about the Big Shift that is transforming our world. At the same time that the Big Shift creates mounting performance pressure, it also creates exponentially expanding opportunity – we can create far more value with far less resources and far more quickly than would have been possible a decade or two ago. If the opportunity is inspiring enough, it will motivate people to overcome their fear and take risks in pursuit of that opportunity.

Pose powerful questions. The willingness to move forward will be strengthened by powerful questions related to that inspiring opportunity. Any really big opportunity out in the future has a lot of questions attached to it. If we already had all the answers, the opportunity would already have been addressed. Powerful questions can be a strong motivator for action – they are a call to action and learning. They help to focus us and bring us together in a quest for answers.

Questions also reassure us that no one knows all the answers and that it’s OK to ask questions and ask for help. That also helps to move forward in spite of fear. We know that we can ask for help along the way.

Stage initiatives for impact. There’s another way to help people overcome fear. Be thoughtful about staging initiatives for impact. This is a key lesson that I learned from my video gaming days. A key design principle of video games is to stage the challenges. The early challenges can be addressed with relatively modest effort and help to reassure the gamers that they can succeed in their bigger quest.

If people can see quick and tangible impact from their efforts, it helps to build their confidence and willingness to take even more risk as they move forward. It will also help them to learn about what’s required to achieve even more impact.

Bottom line

If we’re serious about cultivating capabilities in ourselves and in others, we’ll need to address our emotions. We’ll need to find ways to make the journey beyond fear. We’ll never get rid of our fear, but we can find ways to move forward in spite of our fear, especially if we can build excitement about addressing opportunities that are in front of us. As we move from fear to hope and excitement, we will cultivate capabilities that will help us to have more and more meaningful impact in the world around us. A wonderful virtuous cycle will be unleashed.


Sharon Lee

October 6, 2020at 9:11 pm

You are right about facing our demons.

David Keefe

October 4, 2020at 10:58 pm

You still have it and better than ever. Thank you. Been rereading Net Gain for 20 years and felt it was time to checkin with your current work. Keep it up!

Steven Daniels

October 3, 2020at 6:32 am

A place to find an early gain in the overcoming of fear with regards to increasing capabilities, would be to always question ways in which we do things in our everyday lives.
Many will have an order in which they serve out there day.
The reorganising of that can bring its own rewards at little expense. Or in fact none, but it exercises that muscle.

Great blog post.


October 2, 2020at 6:00 pm

Very inspiring article

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(if you've read the book, click here)

My new book, The Journey Beyond Fear, starts with the observation that fear is becoming the dominant emotion for people around the world. While understandable, fear is also very limiting.


The book explores a variety of approaches we can pursue to cultivate emotions of hope and excitement that will help us to move forward despite fear and achieve more of our potential. You can order the book at Amazon.

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