How to Change Other People

If you’re an entrepreneur–or a leader of any kind–the ability to align and bring out the best in the people around you is your most important job. You’re tasked with producing particular outcomes, and you can’t do it alone. 

So what can you do when you need one of your people to step up? When someone you depend on is making excuses instead of delivering results, when a team member is alienating others with a confrontational, know-it-all attitude, or when a rising star isn’t fully capitalizing on an opportunity? 

And let’s say you’ve tried the usual strategies–constructive feedback, advice, motivation, nagging–to no avail. They aren’t changing. You’re getting more frustrated, and maybe even angry, every day.

What are your choices at this point? Most people see three options. You can fire them, you can get more unfiltered and lash out, or you can keep silent. In our new book, You Can Change Other People: The Four Steps to Help Your Colleagues, Employees–Even Family–Up Their Game, we share a fourth way: a four-step process that helps people change while actually strengthening relationships.

The Roots of Resistance to Change

Here’s the thing: People don’t resist change, they resist being changed.

And when we try to change people unskillfully–when we nag or criticize or offer unsolicited advice–we unwittingly stoke their resistance. We get perceived as a critic.

What underlies the stance of the critic is your message, spoken or implied, that you know better than they do, and that they need to listen to you in order to improve.

This approach fails because it triggers shame. And shame is an inhibitory emotion; that is, when people feel shame, they stop taking action. Because it’s one of the emotions we’re least willing to feel, most of us will do just about anything to avoid it, including denying the existence of a problem that might trigger it. And denial is the enemy of change.

The First Step: Shift from Critic to Ally

So what can you do to help others change?

The first, and most fundamental of the four steps is to approach them as an ally, not a critic. Here’s what that looks like: An ally cares about them, has confidence in their capacity for change, and is willing to work with them to help them get there.

Unfortunately, you can’t always just snap your fingers and decide to change your perception of a person whose behavior frustrates you. Repeating positive affirmations a la Stuart Smiley won’t work. Instead, get in touch with the possible positive intentions behind their behavior. What good are they trying to achieve? Remember, everyone’s behavior makes sense to them. Empathizing — considering their positive intentions — softens your judgments about their negative behaviors, and allows you to approach them as an ally.

The Permission Formula

It’s all very well to think of yourself as their ally, but how can you tell if they perceive you that way as well? A good litmus test is to get the other person’s permission to have a conversation with them about a challenging issue. 

It’s not hard to get their permission if they view you as an ally rather than a critic. So the way you ask for that permission must communicate your desire to partner with them, rather than impose your will upon them.

Here’s the three-part permission formula:

  1. Lead with empathy.

  2. Express confidence in their ability to deal with the issue

  3. Ask for permission to engage in the conversation.

For the employee whose arrogance is alienating their teammates, that might sound like this: “I know how frustrating it can be when the best ideas aren’t making it to the top of the pile. I’ve seen you work really well on teams in the past, bringing the best ideas to light and acting on them. Would you like to think this through together?”

The Takeaway

 If you want to align your people and bring out their best, approach them in a way that disarms their resistance. Shift your approach from critic to ally, and make it easy for them to grant you permission to help them up their game. That way, you can scale your vision and influence while building a workplace culture that’s empowering, inclusive, and engaging. 

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