I'm often asked, "Can People Change?" Many executives and managers are often faced with a decision about whether they should give a person on their team another chance to improve? Will it make a difference? Can he/she gain credibility? Will the person ever learn any lessons from his/her mistakes? Can the person change his/her personality?

We've heard people say, "he'll never change" or "a zebra can't change its stripes." But as a leadership coach, I have seen positive changes in behavior and performance by people at executive, management and specialist levels. I've seen changes in people who have a record of being disrespectful to peers and subordinates. I've seen changes with people who are poor delegators. I've seen changes with people who don't collaborate well with peers. I've seen changes with leaders who don't effectively provide strategic direction to their associates. I've seen changes with leaders who lacked the ability to influence others.

Many organizations will "invest" in the development of valuable people. Their performance is often quite good but there is "collateral damage" in how they get to that high level of performance. Maybe it's someone like Richard, a very hard working engineering manager who is highly organized, hands-on and very good at follow-through. He works late and comes in early. Richard likes to create his own process and plan and then will expect everyone on his team to stick to it like glue. But Richard is sometimes referred to as a "control freak" where the engineers on his team MUST follow his detailed direction, his models and his solutions. He micromanages every detail of a task assigned. Most people feel like their work is never good enough and they don't have an opportunity to try out innovative approaches.

Richard reports to a vice president of engineering. This VP is impressed with Richard's ability to impact projects by minimizing costs while designing high quality, operational facilities. But his perfectionistic approach and the turnover in Richard's group is making it difficult to respond to projects related to an operational expansion. The VP believes Richard is a strong performer but he really needs him to make some changes so that his strengths can be "enjoyed" more by the organization. Richard knows that he has to let go of some of his "control" instincts and remove the shackles he puts on the innovation of his engineers.

Commitment to Change

It is not pleasant for someone like Richard when confronted with some areas that need to improve. When asked about their commitment to change, these people often feel conflicted. On one hand, they understand and have seen the negative impact they have on other people. On the other hand, these people can sometimes see that they must manage the way they do because of issues outside their control - lack of clarity by their boss in defining success, lack of resources to accomplish the work, subordinates who aren't performing, etc.

So to make a commitment to change, the individual must make a commitment to focus on areas they can improve about themselves and let the external issues work themselves out in the process.

Commitment to change is an attitude, not an action. In my experiences on coaching assignments, I have found that an individual can begin by committing to a professional development process. I utilize a "contracting" method to help the individual and the person they report to agree on the improvements expected from the professional development process. After they have had a chance to assess their situation and see how they can improve by leveraging their strengths, then they can become more committed to any change.

Understanding Perceptions

Consider Elizabeth who is a Vice President and non-family member of a family owned company. When the company's president and the only family officer of the company told her that he wanted her to develop into his eventual successor, she began formulating improvement goals based on whether it will satisfy the president. She also began to informally obtain input and feedback from her stakeholders (peers, subordinates, customers, vendors) to help her understand their perceptions about what she must change.

It was important for Elizabeth to get an honest, constructive understanding of how people perceive her contribution to this company. She wanted to understand their perceptions about what she needed to improve. She knew that she needed to be able to demonstrate that she was competent to become president and that meant confronting certain weaknesses before she was promoted.

Understanding Core Instincts

Since a person's core instincts are a primary driver of their behavior, real change has to start with an examination of their core instincts. Some of us can be naturally blunt. It's instinctive. Some of us are slow to make decisions. It's instinctive. Some of us avoid conflict. It's instinctive.

But each of these instincts have a positive side. Being blunt is really just being direct and straightforward. Being slow to make decisions is really just being someone who analyzes options carefully before a decision is made. Someone who avoids conflict often drives towards a mutually agreeable solution.

Since instincts come from our core, they are the hardest to see. Toddlers act on their instincts. Adults try to leverage their best instincts in their job, relationships, hobbies, etc. Adults also try to utilize "lessons learned" or learning experiences to avoid letting their instincts get them into trouble.

In my coaching assignments, I often utilize the Birkman Method, a tool for helping individuals understand their core instincts. The Birkman Method defines our instincts in 11 components that describe how we relate to individuals, groups, systems and procedures, authority, etc.This process helps people understand the complexity of their instincts and the impact it has on their performance. Sometimes to achieve greater success, people must learn a new skill or behavior that is a departure from their core instincts.

William, like many of us, is instinctively direct and straightforward in his communication style with others but prefers a more diplomatic approach (as opposed to straightforward approach) when people communicate with him -- especially regarding personal or relationship challenges. If people are too straightforward or even blunt with him, he can become embarrassed and feel uncomfortable in a one-on-one communication. What makes those instincts complex is that most people will see William as straightforward and it will be natural for others to believe he prefers straightforward, brief dialogue. William needs to understand his own complexity and have some fun with it because he can dish it out (being straightforward) but can't take it. William also needs to understand how this might affect him in his communication with his boss, direct reports and peers and then develop some compensating mechanisms for dealing with blunt comments by others.

Setting Improvement Goals

If people are going to change, they need a target. These are personal commitments to improve and should not be goals to make other people happy. Although the feedback received from others should be considered, the improvement goals should be the individual's own targets because they are committed to improve in that area. I help individuals through a process to test and build that commitment to those improvement goals.

A small number of improvement goals should be selected and they should be SMART - Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic and Time-Bounded.

Achieving Improvement Goals

It is important that the organization create a "safe" environment for development so the individual will feel comfortable taking some risks around a departure from instincts and to invest the time necessary to be successful. Although it takes a lot of hard work to develop meaningful improvement goals that the individual is committed to, the real challenge occurs in following through. Very few great plans succeed without excellent follow through. The individual will need resources for help (books, training courses), a sounding board (an internal or external coach) and progress meetings with someone who will monitor their progress.

Consider Laura who is a Vice President and CIO for a mid-sized industrial maintenance services company. She does not have any short term goals of advancing to a higher position within the organization but she set one improvement goal for improving how she manages the Information Technology organization's priorities. These priorities include selection of infrastructure projects, communication of project priorities and managing any change brought about by these priorities. Her reactive nature was having an effect on the culture of the IT organization.

She began to utilize certain new methods -- quarterly offsites to align her leadership team on priorities, monthly memo to all the staff communicating the case for the priority focus and utilizing a change management advisor to help her manage the change. She found it challenging to become habitual in following up with her leadership team after the offsites, in doing "walk-arounds" to gather stories during the month for the next month's newsletter column from the CIO, etc.

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The people I described in this newsletter (Richard, Elizabeth, William and Laura) are not real but the situations described are common challenges that many people face in becoming the best they can in their role and some real methods that I have seen individuals use in their professional development (improvement) effort.

Sometimes a person's developmental changes are subtle and sometimes they are dramatic. There is usually a moment of truth, a turning point, to trigger the change. That moment of truth occurs when the person has a reason to change with enough pain or pleasure associated with it.

PEOPLE CAN CHANGE. We should expect people to change if they need to make some improvements to be more successful in their role. You can't overhaul your personality but with commitment, effort and the right habits, I have seen people make some great improvements. You can change if you have a reason to. Don't let anyone ever tell you differently.

© Michael R. Goodfriend, Goodfriend & Associates, Inc., 2004

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  A clever way to explain and consider the Birkman Method. I appreciate you sending this to me!

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