Can people really change?
A zebra never changes his stripes. A leopard can’t change her spots. People don’t change, they just reveal their real selves over time. Are these statements common wisdom or gross misunderstandings of human nature?
What about the Frog and the Scorpion? A popular story told to explain that people can’t change their basic nature begins with the Scorpion asking the Frog for a ride across the river. The Frog responds, “Are you kidding? Of course not! I know you, Scorpion, and you would sting me and I’d die. No way will I carry you on my back!”
The Scorpion challenges the Frog, “Why would I do that? If I sting you and you die, we both drown. You have nothing to fear by carrying me across the river.” The Frog decides that what the Scorpion said makes sense, so he agrees to the request.
Midway across the river, the Scorpion stings the Frog. As the Frog gasps his last breath before drowning, he implores the Scorpion, “Why? Why did you sting me, knowing we will both drown?” The Scorpion replies, “It’s my nature.”
Is it helpful to relate our human nature to zebras, leopards, scorpions, and frogs, belying the idea that people are self-determinant beings capable of change?
Sure, examples of people who don’t change are plentiful. Despite backlash and personal repercussions, a convicted felon may continue his illegal lifestyle at the risk of breaking parole and being sent back to prison. A drama queen continually pushes people from her life, despite her need for meaningful relationships. Leaders do what’s comfortable for them in the moment rather than what’s best for those they lead.
Because evidence of people not changing is abundant -- and because we may have struggled or failed in our own attempts to change -- we tend to assume people don’t change their basic human nature. Instead, we need to contemplate: Could the felon, the drama queen or self-absorbed leaders change? If the answer is yes, it leads to three more questions worth asking ourselves.
3 questions worth considering
Do people really change?
Evidence points to yes. We are constantly changing -- physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Medical research reveals that the cells in your body change about every seven years. Brain studies reveal extraordinary neuroplasticity enables you to change neuropathways and, thus, habits and behaviors. Mindfulness research poses exciting possibilities for developing empathy, making better decisions and enhancing emotional regulation. Motivation science points to how fulfilling psychological needs affects almost everything we do and feel.
A common thread of every great spiritual practice throughout history is the belief that human beings can raise their conscious awareness and live life at a higher level. The belief that things can change entices you to greet a new day. Hope is a belief that things -- and you -- can change for the better.
Not to believe that you can and do change is to wonder what our human experience is about -- if not to evolve and grow in wisdom. We are not scorpions or frogs. We are beings with self-determination and the ability to choose who we are, what we believe and how we behave.
Do you want to change?
As a leader in any capacity, you are obligated to understand the undercurrents of your behavior so you can adapt your behavior accordingly. Hopefully this doesn’t strike you as soft. Changing your behavior may not resonate if you are a leader who claims, "My strength comes from just being myself." The thought of changing may frighten you if you believe that leadership is about being firm and resolved in your behavior rather than honestly meeting the needs of those you lead.
Your blind spots are the biggest obstacles to being a good leader. You need to accept and build on your strengths, but be willing to change your behavior when necessary to achieve goals for the common good.
This is not soft stuff. In fact, introspection and becoming more versatile are hard work. They require conscious and applied effort. They take quiet, reflective time. They demand honesty and the courage to challenge how your inner psychic needs influence the way you meet the demands of leadership.
How does change happen?
If you believe that your personality is hardwired, mostly a matter of genetics, and simply who you are -- that you can’t change your basic nature -- then you won’t care about how change happens. But, if you sense that your human nature is complex, yet capable of growth, then you might be curious about how change happens.
I will share concrete examples in future posts of how people have embraced the latest discoveries in medical, motivation, and brain science to create major changes in their personality. Even if you think like a frog, you could learn to be more discerning. If you act like a scorpion, you could learn how to get where you’re going without hurting yourself or others. Accepting that people can and do change, wanting to change, and learning how to regulate and adapt your behavior will not only serve the people you lead but increase the quality of your life experiences.
Susan Fowler implores leaders to stop trying to motivate people. In her latest bestselling book, she explains "Why Motivating People Doesn't Work ... And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing. She is the author of by-lined articles, peer-reviewed research, and six books, including the bestselling "Self Leadership" and the "One Minute Manager" with Ken Blanchard. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs, such as the Situational Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. For more information, visit SusanFowler.com.
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