#4 Can People Change?

by Steven Cerri on September 21, 2006

Can People Really Change? (Part 2)

The Answer To The Million Dollar Question.

Good morning!

I’m now going to answer the question I posed in the previous blog—“Can People Really Change?” In the previous blog I pondered exactly what that question meant. And I’ll now answer it in two ways. First I’m going to say that if the question is really asking if people can change their personalities, if they can change “who” they are, then my answer is “I don’t know and it really doesn’t matter”.

A manager’s job is not to “change” someone. If that’s the manager’s life mission they should have been a therapist.

Second, a better question to ask is, “Do People Change Their Behavior?” And the answer is absolutely “YES”.

As a manager, your job is to get a specific behavior from people, behaviors that support the goals of the organization, not to change their personality.

People are constantly changing their behaviors to get what they want and a manager’s job is to find a way to get people to behave in such a way that is productive for the team, the company, the project, and the individual.

In fact, that’s exactly why I got the reputation of being a manager who could build high performance teams with people no other managers wanted to work with. I was able to focus on getting the behavior that I wanted. And it’s why my coaching programs produce such powerful results (I know that’s blatant self-promotion, but it’s a fact.)

The best way to think of it is this way. Imagine that each human being is an iceberg floating in the sea of life. (Sounds poetic doesn’t it?) From our birth through our early years our iceberg has the potential to float pretty high in the water. A good deal of our potential way of being, our potential personality and the behaviors produced are visible for all the world to see. We play, we express ourselves, we laugh, we cry according to some internal and innate sense of who we are and who we can be and who we are becoming! Our behavior is flexible and varied.

Then life occurs and “stuff” gets added on top of our iceberg and more and more of our iceberg gets pushed under the surface of life, invisible to most people. We “grow up”, we go to college, we become technical professionals and our iceberg gets well defined as a “technical professional’s” iceberg. Now life just keeps happening and maybe all of a sudden the waters change. Maybe they get warmer; maybe they get colder; maybe they get rougher; maybe they get calmer. Whatever new situation arises, it’s a new situation and the question becomes, “What happens to our iceberg?”

Well, we generally attempt to ride in the “new” waters the same way we rode in our “old” waters. And often that doesn’t work. So a manager, coach, mentor comes along and starts to interact with us. All of a sudden things are different. The person (in this case, the “we”) begins to behave differently. As I said, in my career, my experience is that I can take people who have not been willing to change their behavior and when they find themselves traveling in the waters I manage, they’re different. What’s unique? Is it me, is it the other person, or have both of us led to this difference?

I’ve now come to understand what happens not so much as a change process at the core of an individual but as a “potential” for changed behavior and the appearance of that changed behavior in the world. You see, many people are hiding most of their potential under the waters’ surface, out of view of the world. If you know how to change the surface “weight” on their iceberg, (i.e., the environment, the communication, their relationship to their world) you can actually get people to “expose” a capability they have always had but that hasn’t been visible, yet. The capability has always been there and because of fear, or lack of need, or lack of knowledge, it stayed hidden. The really exquisite manager, or mentor, or coach, can bring this capability to the surface and help the person expose it and all of a sudden it looks like the person has changed when in reality they’ve had the capability all along and all that is different is that the person is behaving differently. Have they “changed” at the core? Maybe; maybe not.

But as a manager, I’m not interested if they’ve changed at their core, I’m most interested in their ability to change their behavior.

Now some people don’t have certain capabilities. No amount of coaching, managing, or mentoring will bring a behavior to the surface if it’s not under the surface to begin with. For those people, training and desire are then necessary. For example, let’s say my manager decided that the company needed a brain surgeon and I should be it. I’m not a brain surgeon and I haven’t been trained as a brain surgeon. It’s not a reasonable potential for me, yet. No amount of coaching, mentoring, or managing is going to make me a brain surgeon by uncovering that hidden capability. In order for me to be a brain surgeon I have to want it, badly, and I have to be trained in it. Once trained, I can have that behavior as a potential.

Likewise, if a manager wants an employee to behave differently and the necessary capabilities are not there, such as communication skills, or management skills, or and interpersonal skills, no amount of prodding is going to make it happen. The direct report will have to want to make those changes and will have to acquire the knowledge and training necessary to have those capabilities.

On the other hand, if your manager wants you to make a presentation to a thousand people, and you already have comfort speaking in front of a few people, but you just haven’t spoken to a thousand people before, then getting you to step up on stage to speak to a thousand people is merely a capability that has been hidden from view. And in the right circumstances, that behavior will show up.

So I’ve come to believe that I don’t know the answer to the question “Do people change?” What I have concluded is that people have a vast potential that is unexplored, unexposed, and not used in the way they can behave. A vast potential of how they can become given the opportunity. And there are two requirements for a behavior to show up. Number one they have to want it. A desire to have the new capability and the new behaviors is a necessary but not sufficient requirement. The second required component is the exquisite mentor, coach, or manager who can create an environment where some of that vast potential of the person can indeed be exposed. It’s what Peter Drucker meant when he said a manager’s job is to emphasize people’s strengths and make their weaknesses irrelevant.

There you have it. Like the iceberg, there is much more under these words that goes into their application. This is the process that I use in my coaching program. At some point in your career, as a technical professional you’ll be asked to behave not so much as an engineer, scientist, or technologist, but as team leader, a manager, a facilitator, or marketing communicator (or maybe you’ve already been asked). All or some of these requested behaviors might be potential behaviors that have been hidden but have not yet become available to you. How do you make the shift? How do you behave differently and keep yourself intact. This is where coaching, and judgment come into play.

Be well

Steven Cerri

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