“I’ve got an employee who refuses to change. Can you give me some tips for making him understand he’s got to change the way he’s doing things at work?”
So wrote a reader, I’ll call her Chloe, who’s in middle management at a university. I hear this question frequently during workshops, too, so decided it’s time to write about it again.
In 2005 I wrote a post, Nothing’s Permanent Except Change, making the case that it’s not very effective to put people in the “he can’t change” or “she doesn’t like change” box and interact with them accordingly. I also said—and still do—that trying to make anybody do anything is a trap:
Comedian David Sedaris said, “I haven’t got the slightest idea how to change people, but still I keep a long list of prospective candidates just in case I should ever figure it out.” I suspect a lot of us have our secret and not-so-secret lists, too.
But down deep we know that there’s little we can really do to make someone change. They have to want it themselves. Sure, we can permanently alter their job description or the organizational structure in an effort to force the issue, but my experience as a mediator is that it just pushes the real issue under the rug and, too often, the person ends up working around or subverting the forced changes in some pretty creative ways.
I tell my mediation graduate students that it’s a little red flag when they find themselves thinking, “How can I get that person to [you fill in the blank: do what I think they should do, simmer down, listen to the other, listen to me, change what they’re doing, etc.]. The moment they find themselves thinking that or something similar is the very moment they’ve stopped trying to understand and started trying to convince. That’s dangerous territory for a mediator and ineffective territory for a boss who wants an employee to change.
Why? If our powers of persuasion are strong, why not use them? Because, as I pointed out in my ’05 article, most people don’t change without first being understood. If you want someone to change, your best energy is spent trying to understand. Not pretending to understand. Not asking a couple of rote questions and assuming you understand, but taking the risk to really understand what’s motivating their resistance and perhaps, in the process, learning that you have some changes of your own to make.
Here are the kinds of questions I ask as a mediator or conflict management consultant when I’m working with an individual or group that’s been tagged “resistant to change.” These are door-opener questions only…their real value is in creating in-depth conversation from which you and the other person can create a path to the future:
- What is it about the proposed changes that concerns you?
- What do you think is really behind the changes? Have you discussed this with anyone in the administration?
- If the proposed changes go forward as planned, what do you think will be the impact on you?
- What do you think shouldn’t be changed? Why?
- What parts of the proposed change sound reasonable and do-able?
- If you were ever to decide to adopt the changes, what should the organization do to help that happen and support you?
- Do you think the organization should be listening more to your input? How could that best happen?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. And, no doubt again in the future: Don’t tell. Ask. Ask. Keep asking. There’s a reason mediators use questions so much: Questions unlock conflict and create understanding.