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 how to get people to change their behaviors in support of workplace improvements. After over thirty years in business, I have yet to see the ‘challenge of changing people’ topic not be a popular one. I continue to see people flock to such sessions in search of the answer.  How do we motivate people to change? Now, as a contract root cause analysis trainer for the person that gave that talk, Mark Paradies, I better understand the possible answers myself.

Why is Changing People So Difficult?

In an ideal world, the answer to this question is a simple 5-step process. First, define the desired results in clear terms. Second, let people know what the benefits of obtaining this result will be. Next, provide them with the necessary support to help facilitate the change. Fourth, let them know what the consequences of failing to obtain results. Finally, effectively recognize them if and when they are successful. Since we work 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 is that we often fail to define significant consequences for performance failures. Worse yet, we fail to follow-up on the execution of such consequences in those cases where we need to take such action.

What Consequences Can You Use?

There are really only four main types of consequences that we as members of management can use as leverage to encourage change. The most common consequence we use involves nagging people about the need to change. Nagging rarely works. It consumes a lot of time, and often results in people who do only the minimum. Their goal is to get us to leave them alone.

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. Use of this approach usually creates a lot of fear in the workplace as well. Additionally, good employees are getting harder and harder to find, so we are often reluctant to let a resistant employee go. We might even know that their replacement might be 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 if they fail to put a given change in place, the company will not obtain 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. Whenever I hear the use of the word ‘nag’, 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. What can we use on a regular basis to help us ‘change people’ more effectively? 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. Does the use of these consequences really stop the recurrence of the problem behavior? We still have people who yell at other people at work when they fail to meet an expectation. Does this consequence help us correct problem behaviors? It has been my experience that when we yell or nag, we merely encourage employees to hide mistakes so management does not gripe about them again in the future.

What Does It take to Motivate People?

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 that management cannot keep an eye on them every minute of each day.

In order to motivate people, they have to agree that it is important to do a task 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 meet expectations. We can deny people privileges or take away things they enjoy as possible consequences. Will such actions motivate them to consistently meet expectations over the long term? The focus instead will be how to stay out of trouble. Build ‘internal pride in workmanship’ as a focus instead.

DISCOVER MORE: How Great are Your Rule Enforcement Systems?

Some Final Thoughts on Changing People

We hear talk about the need 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. 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 the need to act as a parent will continue, 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. 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. If you want people to change, you have to change your work systems first.

When we fail to follow procedures, don’t treat all customers with respect, and fail to seek out ways to make each job better, the consequence is a ‘near death’, 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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