I’m paraphrasing Heraclitus here, of course. I think about change a lot because much of the organizational or interpersonal conflict I’m invited to help sort out involves, to some degree, a person’s or an organization’s wish that someone else change. While I think it’s true that there are folks who are less comfortable with change and folks who are more so, from a dispute resolution or negotiation point of view it’s a real trap to base your effort on "getting someone to change." Here’s why:
I haven’t yet met the person who can’t change. We change all the time…where we live, our jobs, our hair color, even our spouses. So, I usually view with skepticism the comment, "Oh, she just can’t handle change" or "He just won’t change."
Pop psychology has its place and can be helpful to making meaning of situations and the world around us. It can also trap us into diagnosing someone unfairly and unhelpfully when it’s none of our business to do so. When we diagnose, we put them in a box (the "they can’t change" box, in this case) and then spend too much of our effort working to fix them or working around them.
You can’t change people
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.
Most people don’t change without first being understood
So says psychologist Jeffrey Kottler (affiliate link) and I think he’s right. I’ve found it’s a whole lot more effective—both in terms of outcome and time—to spend less effort trying to cajole, convince, rationalize or pressure someone into changing and more effort working to understand the barrier to their interest in changing.
There are some powerful, simple questions that can begin to uncover this kind of important information: What is it about the proposed change that concerns you? Is there a way you can imagine the proposed change happening so that you’d want to be part of it? What are the ways the proposed change doesn’t work for you or creates problems for you? Having a meaningful conversation that comes from these questions takes commitment.
It’s all about how
I remember an employee at a mid-size corporation who complained to me, "It’s not the change itself that’s bothering me. I’m reluctant because of the way it all came about. I wasn’t asked, I wasn’t included, and I feel imposed upon. Why should I put myself out to help a place that clearly doesn’t care much about me?"
I cannot tell you how frequently I hear this kind of concern, even in organizations that think of themselves as caring and inclusive. Meaningfully engaging (in other words, not just lip service to make them "feel" consulted) employees and colleagues about the changes can make a huge difference.
So the country won’t change me
During the Vietnam War, A.J. Muste stood night after night holding a candle in front of the White House. One night a reporter asked him, "Mr. Muste, do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night with a candle?" Muste replied, "Oh, I don’t do it to change the country, I do it so the country won’t change me."
There’s a valuable lesson here for those of us charged with moving organizations forward and making sure our businesses are nimble in the marketplace. If we can figure out how to help our employees stay true to who they are and what they value while at the same time being part of the organization’s forward-movement, we’ll reduce the conflict so frequently associated with change. It takes real effort up front to do this, certainly. And it is very likely to save effort in the long run.