So You Want Someone to Change

By Marcia Reynolds
Marcia Reynolds

People don't change because you want them to. They might not even change if they want to. Three conditions must be present for a person to whole-heartedly commit to changing their behavior.


If ...

1. The person is willing to take the first step,
2. The change provides a payoff they desire, and
3. They have the courage to let go of old habits, to make mistakes and feel awkward or fearful while trying, and to admit to others that they needed to change,
...they may make the changes you request. If one of these factors is missing, they will probably fall victim to their resistance to change.


Unfortunately, it often takes a crisis or a bad situation before people willingly accept they need to change. Instead, they spend their energy rationalizing and justifying their current behavior.

If you ask someone to change their behavior, you need to be equipped with the "why." You need to precisely identify the negative impact their current behavior is creating. This is not the consequence, the "if you don't stop, you will be sorry" declaration. This is the description of how the person's behavior is affecting the feelings of others and hurting the end result. If the impact is evident, the person might be willing to try on new ideas and actions. This is step one.


A person may be willing to work on new solutions, take a risk, or listen to a different point of view. Unless there is a payoff based on something they want, their willingness will not last long.

Real changes occur only if the person has a strong personal desire to make them happen. People say things like, "I'll try to quit smoking," "I'll try to stay calm and listen," "I'll try to do read the instructions" knowing they don't really want to. Desire is based on a payoff.

Most long-term changes don't happen because it is the right thing to do or it will please someone else.

Logic may initiate change but it cannot sustain it without the emotional support of desire.

Too many failures happen because, "my heart wasn't in it."

Therefore, when asking someone to change, you need to find the emotional payoff that will fuel the commitment to practicing the change until it sticks.

Payoffs that inspire change are usually related to something the person values such as being seen as a leader, being respected by their peers, developing skills that will help them meet their goals, earning the chance to be given challenging projects and adventures, more time with their family, more fun at work or peace of mind.

Be careful about promising money because the joy from a bonus or raise is short-lived.

Tying the change to someone's personal values and career dreams is more likely to result in long-term results.

Always ask the person what they want. Do not assume that what you value will match those of your colleagues or even your spouse.

Additionally, desire can change over time. Life circumstances and wisdom often change our perspective on what we hold dear. Never assume you know someone too well to ask them what they want.


Iyanla Vanzant, wrote in One Day My Soul Just Opened Up, "I was not willing to make people angry or hurt their feelings...I was not willing to sound weird or stupid or like a know-it-all. I was not willing to run the risk of being wrong. I was not willing to defend myself if I were challenged...I knew what needed to be done, but I was not willing to do it."

Courage is a word rarely used at work but keeps people frustrated and stuck in old behaviors. Once faced with a conflict or the possibility of looking stupid, good intentions fly out the window.

They might be willing to try and they desire better results. As soon as negative emotions rush in, they lose the gumption to sustain the change.

The good news is that helping people to acknowledge what they fear can break down these blocks. Fear of disapproval can be vanquished when we admit someone might not be happy with what we do or say. Fear of making a mistake is surmountable when we admit we are less than perfect.

Declaring a fear out loud takes the air out of the emotion. When a person says they worry about what others will think, they are taking the first step toward doing it anyway.

Helping someone muster the courage to say, "Yes!" in the face of possible embarrassment or loss is one of the greatest gifts you can give them.

You must create a safe space for people to reveal their fears. If you sense the fear, you might share a story where you felt the same thing, making it okay for the fear to exist. Then remind the person that courage is not the absence of fear, but acting in the face of the urge to flee. This is the stuff of heroes.


When working with someone who needs to change but doesn't seem to be moving in the right direction, determine if they

a) Have expressed a willingness to change.
b) See a payoff for getting the better result.
c) Have the courage to sustain the pain of change or to act differently in front of others.

What support does the person need from you? Do they need advice? Do they need encouragement? Do they need to know they aren't weak or incompetent, but merely human?

Changing behavior isn't a decision; it's a process that needs support.