Don’t Change People. Let Them Change.

If there’s one mistake I have made more than any other in my career, it is setting out on a project with a goal to change people. I can assure you that if you read through this blog you will find all sorts of language about how to get people to change, how to drive change and how to force change. Bad habits die hard.

Force is an ever present temptation for managers, leaders and change agents in the world of work. We have a desire to specify exactly how things should work. We feel our position is rational and justified. Why can’t others just do what we need?

Robots might but humans have their own calculations. They consider what we need in light of all the circumstances and their needs. You can’t change someone. They can only change themselves. We need to shift the agency of change from those advocating change to those who must do the work, because that is the only place change can happen.

Understanding this difference, turns challenges of the change into opportunities.

  • Do you really need senior leadership support? Are you just trying to get more power to for e change? Fighting for this support can be a bottleneck in organisational change. If they won’t change are they really that relevant to the work?
  • What are people trying to say when they resist change? Resistance is at least a form of engagement. It’s better than ignoring change entirely. What insights might improve your change if you understood the drivers of resistance?
  • What capabilities and systems might people need to change effectively ? A proper assessment of capabilities, systems and performance impacts of change is essential to make it easier for people to choose to change. Too much capability building is just an elegant form of communication, not actual enablement.
  • What might you learn if you share the purposes of the change and engage others? I’ve seen many changes taken well beyond the dreams of leaders when an engaged team takes responsibility for managing the change itself.
  • How might you need to change to help others? The most surprising learnings from a change program can be that you are the one who has to change.

In any change process there will be people who don’t want to come along. Some you will have to work around. Others will prefer to leave because they can’t or won’t change. These are far better choices than the false compliance of someone who has been forced to change. In a world of work that demand commitment, compliance is deadly.

Humans are participants in change, not widgets in a process. Allow others to shape the change they need. Help them to make it better. You may even end up being the one who changes most.

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