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Leadership Development

Published By:
National Post

Can people change?

By Michael Stern 21st May 2008


Can people change? You bet!

Every manager has people on their team who aren't contributing 100%. Hopefully, you have long since shipped out employees with bad attitudes, and those whose lax work ethics brought down the entire group. Some things just can't be fixed - or take too much time and effort.

But what about the talented employees who just aren't quite perfect? The achievers with the weak people skills, or the high performers with tempers to match? You know they have a lot to give, yet they'll never be promotable unless they're willing to change. But will they ever be able to throw off the bad traits and adopt new ones?

You'd better believe it. Because if you don't believe it, you're making it even more difficult to create the changes you're looking for. A recent Yale University study found that as people age, they become less optimistic that other people can transform undesirable traits into desirable ones.

But the researchers also learned that confidence is an important ingredient in change. As one Yale psychologist says, "Someone who believes people can change is less likely to give up in the face of failure and succumb to feelings of helplessness… if you believe change is possible, you are more likely to encourage or support change in others."

This may seem obvious, but it's key to the age-old debate about whether or not to try to rehabilitate sub-par performers. Given the shortage of management talent in Canada today, holding out for perfect workers isn't an option - so you might as well take a chance and try and lead your people to the changes you'd like to see.

How to do it?
  • Stop hinting around.
    If there are new behaviours you'd like to see certain team members adopt, or bad habits that deserve immediate banishment, let your people know what they are. As an executive coach, I have frequently met accomplished business leaders who have only recently been informed that they're not perfect. If they've never had the strengths-and-weaknesses conversation, how could they be expected to improve?

    I remember discussing one candidate's chances of landing a new position that he really wanted. I told him that my client was a little concerned about his terse, abrupt verbal style. I asked what he had been doing to overcome this shortcoming, in response to previous feedback from his boss or peers; information he could use to convince the hiring company that the problem was being addressed?

    The look in his eyes instantly told me that none of his bosses had ever bothered to tell him about this problem.


  • Make sure the people you spend time on are truly committed to change and growth.
    On executive search assignments, I've often had unsuccessful candidates ask me for feedback on how they could do better next time. I've learned, sadly, to wait for them to ask three or four times before I comply. In my experience, many of them just want to vent about not winning the competition; they turn out to be more interested in refuting assessments they don't like than in learning from objective feedback.


  • Give people the tools to change.
    Encourage them to read books about the changing world of management (Marshall Goldsmith's book What Got You Here Won't Get You There is a good start, or anything by Jim Collins). See that HR exposes them to appropriate development courses and programs; it's hard to change without help.


  • Make sure effective feedback —and the expectation to act on it— becomes part of your company culture. Establish objective feedback mechanisms (e.g., 360-degree assessments). Review the results with your direct reports to find out what they think about the feedback and what next steps to take. To help people understand what's required of them in future, develop mutually agreed, measurable objectives


  • Model the traits and behaviours you expect your team members to adopt.
    If you expect them to be decisive, action-oriented and yet also empathetic, you to must try to display these qualities. People tend to follow their leader. You can be the mentor and role model your people need. Or as Mahatma Gandhi said, be the change you want to see.


  • Support your people as they struggle to change. Reinforce what they're doing well: praise successful new behaviours —don't harp on their shortcomings. Be forgiving of people's mistakes. Change is hard: it requires experience and learning, as well as desire and commitment. And precious little learning happens without mistakes.


  • Take advantage of daily learning opportunities.
    Help your people grow and develop by giving them more guidelines and fewer directives. Resist the urge to solve their problems for them; give them the questions to ask and help them think through the successful solutions.


Changing behaviors takes effort. But given the right guidance and a strong commitment, the results can be astonishing.