Can People Change?

An ever-interesting  issue that comes up when managing employees is: can people really change?  Employers, of course, generally assume that employees can change and therefore set expectations, create goals, evaluate, develop performance improvement plans, and the like.  In many cases employees can and do change, so these tools are necessary and effective.

What about the employee who doesn’t seem to change? The one who continues – despite supervisory attention – to be tardy, to not finish assignments, to play poorly with others, or to yell at co-workers when stressed?  In many of these cases, change is possible if a few basic principles are understood:

  • Change at the margins is easier than fundamental personality change.  What’s at the margins will depend on the person, but examples are: dressing professionally, getting to meetings on time, following procedures, counting to ten before exploding, etc.  Sometimes small changes can have a huge impact on how the employee is viewed by others and views him or herself.  Small do-able changes should not be sniffed at.
  • Change requires the appropriate carrot and stick to ensure that the employee understands what is expected and is motivated to make the needed change.  Many managers wonder: “Why can’t I just ask my employees to do something and it gets done?  Why do I have to baby them? This is a job!”  The answer: humans are complicated.  Resistance and resentments can arise for a host of reasons.  The manager may come across as a nagging parent or spouse and the employee responds accordingly.  The manager and subordinate may have scripts that they just keep repeating.  The employee may have insecurities or inadequacies that he or she is hiding.  And so on.  The supervisor him or herself often needs to change his or approach to the problem.
  • Adding a positive behavior is often easier than eliminating a negative one.  For example, it may be easier for a bullying supervisor to learn to say hello in the morning to each of his or her subordinates and to bring in donuts once a month than to stop yelling when a hot button is pressed.  By adding these positive behaviors, the entire dynamic may change such that it’s then easier for the supervisor to change the negative behaviors.  If nothing else, these positive “deposits in the bank” may reduce the impact of the negative behaviors. 

In other situations, however, change may not be easy or possible: 

  • Change will be hard if the person is in the wrong job. People succeed in jobs that align with their strengths.  The opposite is also often true.  If an employee is poor at numbers, an accounting or finance related position is rarely going to work.  If they’re basically antisocial, customer service is not a good field for them. In such a situation, the employee may not be able to change sufficiently to meet the demands of the job. 
  • People often cannot change fundamental personality traits .  In these cases, the employer certainly should give the employee the opportunity to make the needed changes – with a focus on behavior and action, not personality.  But at some point, the employer will need to accept the reality that it’s not going to work out and act accordingly.  These situations can be very difficult.
  • Finally, in some cases the employee just doesn’t want to change and sees it as unnecessary. Termination may be the only way to address this type of employee.

Do you have other ideas on helping employees change?   ~Amy Stephson

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