#3 Can People Change?

by Steven Cerri on September 18, 2006

Can People Really Change?

The Million Dollar Question.

Good morning!

Recently I was in a coaching session with a high level technical manager at a high-technology company. This manager has been struggling with a difficult direct report. In the course of our session the manager asked me point blank: “Can people really change. I’m beginning to get to the point where I think we really can’t change people.”

Now that’s the $1 million question, isn’t it? As managers, can we change people? Should we change people? Do we have the ability or even the right to contemplate the phrase; “Can I change this person?

Have you changed? Have people close to you changed? When you think about whether you have changed are you looking at a time frame of months, or years, or decades? When you ask the question: “Have I changed?” what’s your answer? Do you respond, “Well I’m the same person but I’m different too.” “Different in what ways?” “The same in what ways?” If you focus on what’s the same, does it mean you haven’t changed? If you focus on what’s different, does it mean you have changed?

Can we change people only if they want to change? Do we change at the “surface” but not at our “core”? What is the core anyway? If I’m a technical person am I a “technical person” for the rest of my life? Do people need a life-altering situation in order to change?

Frankly I don’t know the answers to these questions. These are age-old questions, aren’t they? I like to think that people change and yet for every example I can give you of how someone has made a miraculous change I can give you another example of someone who has resisted change. Is there a “truth” in there somewhere or is it just my perspective? I believe that anyone who tells you they know the answers to these questions is full of hot air.

Having said all that you might ask, “Well, as a technical manager, what’s the use of trying to help people to be successful? People come to work as who they are and that’s that. They either do their job or they don’t. It’s not my job as their manager to change them.”

Now that last paragraph is one I really don’t agree with. I do think there are certain boundaries and generalities that we can make about the possibility of human change. I’ve seen people make radical shifts or changes in behavior in my years as a manager. Is a shift in behavior a change in them or just a change in behavior? Remember, as a manager, you ultimately manage a person’s behavior; you don’t manage changes in a person’s personality. What you want as a manager is a specific behavior from an individual, not their soul. Let me explain; let’s take this a step at a time:

First, we probably all know people who fall into the category in which they are not going to change, no matter what. They are set in their ways and they’ll gladly say so to anyone who will listen. They like themselves just the way they are, and it’s clear, just in conversation that they are not interested in changing one bit. These are not the people I’m talking about here. We can exclude them from this conversation.

Second, we also probably know people who don’t seem to have a sense of themselves. They adopt whatever demeanor, behavior, and personality are best suited to the situation. They are also not the people I am talking about here. We can exclude them from this conversation as well.

The third group comprises the people I am talking about and they are those people who have some sense of themselves in a way that is stable and identifiable to the outside world. Their way of moving through the world, their way of being, for them, has worked well enough in life. Perhaps things have moving along just fine and now they are coming up against some “personal life force or situation” that requires them to change in order to deal with it. They can either change and deal with the situation successfully or they can revert to old behaviors and get hammered by the situation. The bottom line is that we probably have enough experience in our own life and in our observations of others to know that about 50% of the time people change and 50% of the time they get hammered.

From this third situation what are we to conclude? Are we to conclude that people don’t change, that people do change, or that some people can change and some don’t? As I said earlier in this blog, to this question I must say that I don’t really know the answer. But I do have a different way to think about this that makes a great deal of sense to me and explains the observable facts better than the black and white answers, “yes” or “no”.

I’ll elaborate in Thursday’s blog. See you then.

Be well

Steven Cerri

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