How to help people to change themselves

You’re frustrated with a  good employee who reports to you because you feel they aren’t working up to their full potential. You’ve worked with them for some time now, and they appear to want to make the changes you’ve agreed to together, but you don’t see them.

You might also be irritated at yourself while you’re working hard to figure out what you should do to be  better coach or mentor to this employee. Maybe it’s time to understand how people change and allow yourself some compassion because you know that you can’t change others – only they can do that.

You’re up against a couple of things:

Conditioning: They’ve been conditioned to behave a certain way by their families, social circles and work environment. Almost unconsciously, they learn to do what works for them, what makes them feel good and rewards them in some way, even if it’s not what is needed now for them to fulfill their potential. These behaviors shape the brain like the grooves in vinyl records, facilitating habitual actions to play over and over without much thought.

Identity: Everyone forms an identity, meaning we all have a self-concept of who believe we are. Your employee’s behavior is shaped by this identity through mostly-unconsciously noticed feedback that reinforces the identity they’ve built for themselves. We all have an “identity” that we’ve shaped over the years. It’s the story we tell ourselves about who we are in the world.

The fact that you’ve been working with that employee with potential means that something in their world has changed where their conditioning and identity may also need to change. This change isn’t an easy job for them, since they are, as we all are, creatures of habit, we don’t particularly like change, and we prefer to convince ourselves that how we show up in our workplace is okay.

Except it isn’t always. It’s those times that the environment requires a personal change. We have to be adaptable or we can’t reach that latent potential we all have.

So, how can you support others to adapt and change in a way that will benefit them and your organization?

Self-observe: Ask them to self-observe themselves in action (or in the specific situations where the behavioral change is needed). This can be done by “splitting themselves in two” in real time – one part, doing what they normally do, the other part observing their physical, mental, and emotional reactions. Ask them what they notice.

Choosing: After enough self-observing and becoming familiar with their automatic behaviors, your employee may come to a point where they realize that they can choose, in the moment, the actions that are right for them and the situation. This is important to the changes they need to make and require you to simply guide them lightly in their choices.

Sustain: Making personal changes takes a lot out of courage, and it takes time. Your job will be to continue to support your employee while encouraging them as they walk down the path to not needing you anymore. At some point, they’ll feel like they can sustain the new behavior.

The truth is that you can’t change them – only they can do that. Having your support, though, as they go through the process of letting go of old habits and taking on new ones is key to their success at realizing their full potential.

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.