Can People Really Change?
In a recent coaching conversation, my client asked me point blank in his abrupt, no-nonsense way, “Linda, is it really possible for me to change?” We had been discussing the results of his recent 360 feedback survey, in which his raters had taken him to task for his lack of interpersonal skills.
The feedback did not come as a surprise; in fact, he expected and accepted it. “It’s just who I am,” he shrugged.
All of his professional life, my client had been commended and promoted for his intelligence, his keen ability to think and act strategically, his unparalleled work ethic, his relentless effectiveness in getting the job done, no matter what. And, he had consistently been told that his soft skills needed work. Recently, attrition in his operation had increased, so HR retained me to see if my coaching could help.
Now as a leader of leaders, 30+ years into his career, he questioned whether it was possible for him to change, and wondered aloud if it was even worth the effort to try.
Is it Worth the Effort?
Maybe it’s not worth the effort, I replied. It depends on what you want. Does it matter to you that your employees and peers believe you don’t care about them as people? Is it okay for them to continue to experience you as brusque and unapproachable?
I was serious. Did he truly not care about others and how they felt when they had to work with him? Did he not notice their unhappiness and frustration when he blew them off to attend to more business-critical issues?
“Of course, I care,” he sighed. “I just don’t know if I CAN change.”
We had reached the pivotal moment in our conversation. The rest of our work together would turn on this single acknowledgement of care and concern – and whether or not my client had the DESIRE for others to experience him as a leader who respects and values them.
It Depends on What you Want
The instant he expressed that he WANTED his relationships to be different was the instant we could begin to explore opportunities for how he could better engage with people without compromising the hard-core business results for which he was known.
I recommended we start with a single behavioral change, one that required him to catch his behavior in the moment and stop in his tracks to talk with the other person in a specific, authentic way. The conversation was to be quick, but to convey respect and concern. And, if he failed to notice his poor behavior in time to catch it, he was to return to the situation and reopen the conversation, again in a specific and genuine way. We rehearsed both situations a few times until the interactions felt somewhat natural.
This approach coincided with my client’s natural drive to dispense quickly with interruptions. We rehearsed, and he was willing to try. His assignment was to report back to me in three or four weeks with stories of what happened when he followed through and things went well and, conversely, when things didn’t go so well.
The positive results from this first effort astounded him, and he came to our next conversation eager to relate his stories and to continue our work. He was energized and heartened by his new-found belief that he could, indeed, change life-long behavior that had negatively impacted him and those around him for too long.
Soft Skills Produce Hard-Core Business Results
His aha moment came when he discovered that by engaging differently with his employees and peers, he became far more effective on the job. He was able to empower those around him to take more initiative, delegate more with confidence that his employees would follow though, and reclaim some elusive time for projects that had gone begging for attention.
If I were asked to select someone whose photo belonged on a poster for developing soft skills in order to drive stronger business results, this client would top my list. In a few short months he transformed from “no hope for change” into an inspiring and engaging leader who likes who he has become.