Why getting others to change is so difficult

IMG_1365Influencing others is one of leaders’ most important responsibilities and greatest challenges.

Most of us are familiar with techniques that are less than effective—providing rational reasons for the change, threatening, and ordering people to change, for instance—yet we persist in doing them, often because we don’t know what else to do.

David Brooks explored this issue in his New York Times column.

“You can tell people that they are fat and that they shouldn’t eat more French fries, but that doesn’t mean they will stop,” he writes. “You can make all sorts of New Year’s resolutions, earnestly deciding to behave better, but that doesn’t mean you will….”

“People don’t behave badly,” Brooks says, “because they lack information about their shortcomings. They behave badly because they’ve fallen into patterns of destructive behavior from which they’re unable to escape.”

Brooks encourages readers “…to pick one area of life at a time (most people don’t have the willpower to change their whole lives all at once) and help a person lay down a pre-emptive set of concrete rules and rewards. Pick out a small goal and lay out measurable steps toward it.

“It’s foolhardy to try to persuade people to see the profound errors of their ways in the hope that mental change will lead to behavioral change. Instead, try to change superficial behavior first and hope that, if they act differently, they’ll eventually think differently. Lure people toward success with the promise of admiration instead of trying to punish failure with criticism. Positive rewards are more powerful.”

What does work then?

  • Having modest, measurable goals within a framework of larger, stretching purposes that energize the change. The achievement and celebration of modest goals also provides the energy to persevere when our motivation lags.
  • Learning to think about things in new ways. While such “reframing” is often essential, it isn’t always necessary for people to change their beliefs before they change their behavior. In fact, a change in beliefs often follows a successful change in behavior that produces the desired result.
  • Repetition of new behaviors until they become habitual. Because old behavior are often deeply rooted and provide their own rewards, it’s easy to underestimate the amount of effort and perseverance required to change even one behavior.
  • Having supportive relationships, particularly with those who are a bit farther down the road of change and who offer hope, a new way of thinking about the problem, and practical solutions to common problems.

The essential role of social support in making lasting change will be explored more fully in my next post.

What have been your experiences with change—as an influencer of change, as the subject of someone’s change effort, or as a person seeking to change—taught you about the “essentials” of influence and the change process?

1 Response to “Why getting others to change is so difficult”


  1. 1 Carol September 25, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    As a subject of someone’s change efforts, it was often difficult for me to accept the need for behavior changes as positive efforts-not negative criticism.


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