News & Insight
December 2003

Making a Change For the Better

Getting employees to change undesirable workplace behavior can be a manager’s most difficult challenge.

We all know people who always arrive late to work, spend too much time on personal telephone calls, take excessively long lunch hours, and exhibit other behaviors that are detrimental to individual and team effectiveness. But getting them to change their habits can be a daunting task.

“It’s hard for people to change longstanding behaviors, even when they know deep inside that they should,” says Marcia Meislin, a member of WJM Associates’ executive coaching and assessment faculty. “Change means giving up part of your identity, succumbing to an internal battle of good versus evil, right versus wrong.”

When people resist change, they frequently employ a variety of defense mechanisms to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. The chronic latecomer, for example, will have an armful of exaggerations and excuses to explain when he can’t get to work when everyone else does. The loquacious receptionist who spends the day calling family and friends will rationalize her behavior by saying she had nothing else to do. And the sales representative who takes two-hour lunches will deny that he’s doing anything wrong because he always meets his monthly quota.

Sometimes, employees will agree to change their habits, but then make no effort to do so. Their words express compliance, but their body language and tone of voice reflect defiance. It takes a lot of skill, even for experienced managers, to confront such passive-aggressive behaviors because they are so subtle.

How, then, can managers effect change, short of putting offenders “on notice”?

“As with any resistance, the rule of thumb is to get the person to air their concerns openly so they can be addressed and discussed,” says Meislin, who suggests that managers take the following steps:

Describe the desired behavioral change in a calm, objective manner. Avoid sounding like an angry parent. Simply discuss the business need and the impact that the change will have on the person’s development. Omit any sense of judgment. If you become too critical, you can set yourself up for a negative reaction.

Acknowledge the employee’s ambivalence about making the change. Tell the chronic latecomer that you know he’s not a “morning person” and that you appreciate how difficult it may be for him to arrive at work on time. Volunteer strategies that you use to overcome your own barriers, or brainstorm together to develop a solution. Then give him some latitude to determine how he will become more of an early riser and develop a schedule for doing so.

Continue to hold people accountable for their job performance. Despite any additional resistance, excuses or sidetracks that the talkative receptionist may try to employ, tell her very clearly that the change you have discussed is a vital aspect of her job performance. If you accept mediocre performance, you are lowering the standards for the employee, the department and yourself.

Confront individuals privately when you observe resistance. If you see people “acting out,” don’t ignore it. Take them aside, tell them what you saw or heard, and give them an opportunity to share what’s going on. When people feel they can talk through their discomforts in a safe environment, they are more likely to lower their guard and talk less emotionally and more rationally.

Put the ball in their court. Let people know that you care about them and their development, but that they have to take action. Establish the goal, offer your support, coach them through the transition, but make sure they understand that they and they alone are responsible for effecting the change. If people believe that all of this is your agenda, the focus will become about you. Remove yourself from the equation, and let them arrive at the solution.

Finally, celebrate success! Ken Blanchard, of The One Minute Manager fame, says to catch people doing things right. In the beginning, even if people are only achieving partial results, tell them you notice an improvement. When they’ve finally righted the course, congratulate them upon their accomplishment, reflect the improvement in their performance review and continue to reinforce other positive behavior.

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