The Challenge of Changing People

by Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer and Systems Guy, Great Systems

One of the best attended sessions at the 2003 IE Solutions conference, which was held in Portland, Oregon, dealt with the topic of getting people to change their behaviors in support of workplace improvements. After over thirty years in business, I have yet to see the topic of changing people not be a popular one. I continue to see people flock to such sessions in search of the answer to the “How do we motivate people to change?” question. In fact, I ended up becoming a contract root cause analysis trainer for the person that gave that talk, Mark Paradies, to help better understand the possible answers myself.

Why is Changing People So Difficult?

In an ideal world, the answer to this question would be simple – define the desired results in clear terms, let people know what the benefits of obtaining this result will be, provide them with the necessary support to help facilitate the change, let them know what the consequences of failing to obtain the results will be, and effectively recognize them if and when they are successful. As we are working with mature adults, these actions should be the only ones we have to undertake in order to accomplish what we need. That said, one might wonder “If it is that simple, why do we have such problems getting people to change?”

Possible answers include the facts that we often fail to define our expectations clearly, we fail to provide true, effective support, and we often do not recognize people effectively. I feel the larger breakdown however can be found in the fact that we often fail to define significant consequences for failing to perform, and worse yet, we fail to follow-up on the execution of such consequences in those cases where they need to be enacted.

There are really only four main types of consequences that we as members of management can use as leverage to encourage change. The most commonly employed consequence involves nagging about the need to change. As I mentioned in a previous article however, nagging rarely works, is time consuming, and often results in people only doing the minimum needed in order to get us to stop bothering them.

On the other end of the consequence spectrum, we can threaten people with their jobs if they fail to change. In today’s litigious society however, this option is hard to follow through on, and the use of this approach usually creates a lot of fear in the workplace in those cases where it is used. Additionally, good employees are getting harder and harder to find, so we are often reluctant to let a resistant employee go, knowing full well that their replacement might be even more of a problem.

We can also appeal to their sense of company in an effort to motivate. I have often seen consequences of this nature used on personal development plans, at more than one organization. In other words, people are told that failing to put a given change in place will result in the company not obtaining its goals. While this angle would appear to be effective from a conceptual perspective, it really only works when people have a highly vested interest in the performance of the company (what’s in it for me?). If you use the right compensation systems, such a vested interest can be created.

EXPLORE More: How to Measure Employee Ownership

Changing People Through Discipline?

Somewhere between constant nagging and the threat of job loss lies the option of using discipline. I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear this word used, I think back to when I was a child and my parents were about to discipline me. Since timeouts, spankings, and being grounded are not really options that we can use at work, I really struggle to define meaningful forms of workplace discipline that can be regularly used to help us be more effective at changing people. We could make Joe stand in the corner for failing to complete his paperwork correctly, but I doubt that this approach would do much to motivate Joe over the long term.

We can threaten to take someone off of a job, restrict their ability to receive overtime work, or make them do work that is less than desirable as punishment, but does the use of these consequences really keep the problem behavior from reoccurring? We still have people who yell at other people at work when they fail to meet an expectation, but does this consequence help us correct problem behaviors? It has been my experience that more often than not that yelling or nagging merely creates a situation where the employee will make sure that the mistake is not detected again by management in the future.

Conventional wisdom teaches us to use progressive discipline in order to get people to follow the rules. As we progress from verbal warning to written warning, and in some cases to the latter two steps of suspension and termination, we really do not do a lot to build the capacity for improvement in our organizations. People will do what they need to do to stay out of trouble – they know the restrictions that management has in terms of keeping an eye on them every minute of each day.

In order to motivate people, they have to agree that it is important that something gets done a certain way. You also have to give them regular feedback (non-threatening of course) when they fail to meet your expectations. More importantly, you need to let them know in a meaningful way when they do a good job of meeting them. We can base our list of possible consequences on denying people privileges or taking away things they enjoy, but doing so will not motivate them to consistently meet expectations over the long term. The focus instead will be on staying out of trouble. Focus on building internal pride in workmanship instead.

DISCOVER More: How Great are Your Rule Enforcement Systems?

Some Final Thoughts on Changing People

We hear talk about needing to hold people accountable – have we not lost if we as human beings can no longer be trusted to hold ourselves accountable? We like to think that if a supervisor is present, then everyone will follow the rules, but in reality, we supervisors are human ourselves. We cannot be everywhere at once, and we cannot keep an eye on every employee action. We must create systems that drive internal accountability, or we are destined to be parents even after our children have grown up.

If you treat your people like children, you will get childish behavior. If you treat them like the adults that they are, most will act like adults. There will always be a percentage of the workforce that will try to cut corners no matter what, but if you have a solid hiring process, a fair compensation process, a balanced measurement approach, and clearly defined expectations, this percentage should be relatively small. Changing people requires changing work systems first.

The consequences of failing to follow procedures, not treating all customers with respect, and failing to seek out ways to make each job better is a dying or dead organization. The connection between one’s personal actions and the demise of the company however is very difficult for most people to make. As management, we have an obligation to make sure that our people know why change is necessary – we need to find ways to make our priorities consistent with theirs. Otherwise, we are destined to keep flocking to sessions on making people change in search of “the answer”.

Keep improving! – Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer and Systems Guy, Great Systems

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