Can People Change?

John Ha
Tags: talent management

Have you ever run into an old friend you haven't seen in 10 or 20 years? Was that person dramatically different from what you remember? Maybe you recently attended a high school reunion and saw some amazing transformations with your own eyes.

One of the highlights of these events is the award ceremony where individuals are recognized for certain accomplishments since graduation. Often, an award is given to someone who exhibits the greatest degree of change. These are the most entertaining because they are full of surprises.

Maybe the award went to the successful CEO who used to be a shy, quiet kid. Maybe it went to the wealthy entrepreneur who barely made it into community college. I'm sure each of you can tell a story about someone who changed so much that you didn't even recognize that person many years later.

So, that brings me to my question. Can people really change who they are? Well, yes and no.

I hold the opinion that people generally do not change who they are. They may evolve and adjust to a degree, but I believe each person is unique, and each person maintains his or her identity through traits and characteristics. In short, people are who they are.

However, I do agree that people can improve certain skills and knowledge through direct training or experience. The sooner that companies understand and accept this, the sooner they can move toward maximum production and efficiency.

Unfortunately, I believe businesses still largely operate on the assumption that people can change who they are. This is evident in how most companies manage and develop their people. They waste an incredible amount of time and resources in an effort to change their employees.

Whether it's trying to turn their best engineer into a manager or their worst salesperson into a better salesperson, companies just don't give up. Their intentions are genuine, but the outcome remains predictable: failure.

Let me share an example that I'm sure will sound familiar to you. A client recently initiated a significant employee development program. It wanted to know where its employees lacked sufficient knowledge, skills or abilities so it could develop and implement a customized training plan to fix those deficiencies. As a result, it designed a lengthy questionnaire with questions such as:

At first glance, it seemed logical. What could be wrong with an initiative aimed to help employees improve themselves? If you are uncomfortable making presentations, doesn't it make sense that you should attend a workshop on how to make effective presentations, especially if you happen to be in sales?

Or, if you are uncomfortable meeting new people, wouldn't you benefit from some communication course since your job is that of a recruiter? After all, don't the best companies provide training opportunities to help their people improve so they can be better at their jobs?

So, how did this client miss the mark? The answer is simple and fundamental. Skills and knowledge can be taught. Behaviors cannot. And, this company was trying to identify behavior issues so it could fix them. Companies that try to change behaviors are wasting time and energy.

If you have a sales executive who is uncomfortable making presentations, and that's a significant job function, your job as a manager should be to get that person out of that role. It shouldn't be to try and train that individual to be an effective presenter.

On the other hand, if a sales executive isn't as current on the latest technology behind your main product or is uncomfortable with PowerPoint, you should consider sending that person to an applicable course.

If you are a manager, you should provide learning opportunities for your employees to gain the necessary skills and knowledge to do their job. But, if someone fundamentally does not have the right behavior characteristics, your job should be to move him or her to another role where there is a better match.

Too often, managers take the easy way out and either ignore the situation or come up with a doomed training plan designed to change those behaviors. Don't fall into that trap.