You might be the reason your employees aren't changing
Guest post by Joseph Grenny
This article originally appeared on Harvard Business Review
We all need a coach. Research we conducted at VitalSmarts shows that 97% of employees readily admit to having a “career-limiting habit” — some behavior that will forever hold them back, unless they can learn to change it.
Consider the example of a CFO we worked with who had his heart set on landing the CEO job when his boss retired. He acknowledged that his tendency to belittle people publicly was holding him back — and he was right. One day, his boss (the incumbent CEO and a former professional athlete) brought him into his office to “coach” him. “You’re arrogant and cruel,” he said. “If you don’t fix those things you’ll never be seen by the board as anything but a technician — and a dangerous one at that.”
The CFO was deeply embarrassed and vowed to change. But, he didn’t. When he was passed over for the CEO job, he resigned in anger.
This example isn’t uncommon. Our research shows that coaching rarely works. Fewer than one in five people who make a concerted effort to change some career-limiting habit actually do it. But even worse, most managers expect their coaching attempts to fail. And worse than that, most recipients of coaching give themselves little chance of real change.
In one study, we asked managers who had just finished coaching a direct report to rate the likelihood that the person would actually change. Fewer than 10% were willing to wager on success. Next, we asked those who had received advice how likely they thought they were to make effective use of it. While they were a bit more optimistic than their bosses, only about a third had high hopes.
Like the ill-fated CFO, many of us are “coached,” but few of us are changed by the experience. Why? Because of these three common — but fixable — mistakes:
Lecturing rather than interviewing. Whether people change is largely determined by why they change. And they are most successful at changing when they choose to change. This is where coaching attempts can create problems. “Coaching” is often imposed rather than invited. Successful coaching assiduously avoids any approach that might provoke resistance to the attempt at change. When we feel something is being imposed on us — even if it’s for our own good — our natural reaction is to resist.
If you’re trying to help someone change, your first consideration must be to approach him or her in a way that enhances, rather than dampens, motivation. Typically, as in the case of the CFO mentioned above, people are already aware that they should change. They may even want to change, but they aren’t changing. So we waltz in with five more good reasons why they should change. We deliver a pithy sermonette and we distract them from choosing to change by instead igniting rebellion.
My colleague David Maxfield and I recently did a field experiment that demonstrates this problem and its solution. (See the experiment here.) We had a couple of teenage boys approach smokers in public and ask if they knew smoking was bad for them and if they would like information about why. They had few takers and met a lot of resentment. These folks neither wanted nor needed more information; they already had enough reasons to feel bad.
In the second round, the boys instead approached smokers to ask for a light for their own cigarettes. Not only did the smokers refuse to help the boys smoke, but — in a surprising reversal of reaction — they began lecturing the boys about the evils of smoking. Finally, the boys said, “You’re telling me that I shouldn’t smoke, but what about you?” Most of the subjects then confessed that they wanted to quit. Our experiment replicated one Ogilvy and Mather performed in Thailand; we conducted our own because we wanted to see the effect on a more heterogeneous group of Western smokers. On the day they carried out the original campaign, calls to smoking cessation lines in Bangkok went up by 40%.
It bears repeating: effective coaches ask more questions and give fewer lectures. Your job is to help people uncover and strengthen motives they already have. Think of your coaching conversations more as interviews than as sermons and you’ll be far more successful.
Motivating rather than enabling. We all have an inherent bias in judging what it will take to help people change — overvaluing motivation.
For example, if we’ve got a colleague — like our CFO friend — who demeans people, we assume the problem is a basic character deficit. Perhaps he’s just a sadist. Maybe he gets a kick out of flaunting his power or intellect. If we have a colleague who tends to procrastinate, we might assume the problem is basic laziness. Or, if we have a colleague who avoids making presentations, we might admonish her to “have some courage, for crying out loud!”
The problem is that when we assume that most issues are a simple matter of motivation, we commit what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error — that is, attributing behavior primarily to dispositional factors (“He’s too timid,” “She’s so aggressive,” etc.). Great coaches don’t make this mistake. They start by addressing ability barriers instead. For example, if someone struggles with procrastination, a good coach might suggest tactics for better managing interruptions. In the case of our CFO friend, his coach helped him recognize his own emotional triggers, which eventually helped him overcome his habit of public personal attacks. If you try to motivate people who lack ability, you don’t create change; you create depression.
Focusing on the actor and ignoring the context. We’re often blind to the many forces that create and sustain certain behaviors, so we tend to focus only on the ones we can see — for example, the CFO biting people’s heads off. But this is dangerously naïve and largely ineffective. Of course we need to address the person’s motives and abilities. But we also need to address four powerful sources of influence: fans, accomplices, incentives, and environment. Someone may feel emboldened to behave badly if:
- a respected board member gives him a thumbs up after an ill-tempered outburst (fans)
- those who disapprove say nothing (accomplices)
- he continues to be promoted and rewarded in spite of (or in his mind, because of) his behavior (incentives)
- unreasonable goals and deadlines keep him in a constant state of anxiety and fatigue — undermining his emotional reserves (environment)
These four factors can confound even the most resolute people in their efforts to change. But our study shows that when all of these sources of influence are engaged positively in the effort, the likelihood of rapid and sustainable change increases tenfold.
The CFO in this example did eventually change. He went on to become a leader who elicited deep loyalty and affection from many. Success came as he acquired new skills, distanced himself from unhealthy enablers, connected with people who modeled the behaviors he wanted to embrace, and removed himself from a context that overtaxed his ability to stay emotionally healthy.
In short, coaching works when it amplifies one’s own motivation, enhances ability, and equips people to address their context when it inhibits their ability to change. When it fails to do that, it simply doesn’t work.
Joseph Grenny is a four-time New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. His work has been translated into 28 languages, is available in 36 countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500. He is the cofounder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and leadership development.