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How to change people without forcing them to change

Managers have a responsibility to develop their employees, which means changing them. Peter Bregman and Howie Jacobson have a guide to making that change more successful and getting employees to buy in to change.

10 min read


How to change people without forcing them to change

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What is change? We use the word to describe things, people, strategies and tactics. We talk about a change of pace, making change, change management. “The times, they are a-changin’,” can be a call to action or a lament for the old days. 

We say people can’t change or that they won’t change. Should we go a step further and assume we can’t really influence change? That we can’t change people, that only they can change? Or even that people don’t really change?

Actually, no. People can change, and managers and leaders have a responsibility to make change happen. 

That’s the gist of Peter Bregman and Howie Jacobson’s forthcoming book, “You Can Change Other People: The Four Steps to Help Your Colleagues, Employees — Even Family — Up Their Game,” which argues that when we use our influence in allyship and support, we have great power to effectively influence people in our life. 

I’ve read Bregman for years, notably at Harvard Business Review, and I was excited to talk with him and Jacobson about their book, about how they define change, and why they are so optimistic in this era of hardened opinions and political divides. 

So again, what is change? As Bregman and Jacobson described it to me, “Change is a disruption of the patterns of the past to create a new and different future.”

Change is practical

Peter Bregman

When it comes to changing people, we need to understand that there’s a difference between people being helped or influenced to change and people feeling like they’re being forcibly changed. 

Think of the old saying “’You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” In a literal sense, would you try to force a horse to do something? Not if you valued your health. But earn a horse’s trust, and a whole world is unlocked.

The manager-employee relationship is much different, but one similarity is that managers have to get things done, and sometimes that requires people to change. This book, as Bregman and Jacobson told me, is “in service of and to support changes people want to make but have a hard time doing.”

Their approach is about behaviors, not just attitude or inspiration. Writing a “conceptual inspirational book that makes you feel good” is nice, Bregman told me, but that’s not what drives change because it’s about behavior — what you do and say and how you engage. 

That’s not to say you can’t have fun in this type of instruction. The book has its origins in Bregman’s coaching training, but it also was inspired by the children’s book “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.” Early concepts of ”“You Can Change Other People” were actually intended to tell stories through cartoons. 

What did the book end up leaning on instead of cartoons? Dialogues. This is a practical book, and as Jacobson told me, “If I can give someone a sentence to use, that can be incredibly empowering.”

Change is natural and good, not shameful

Howie Jacobson

One of Bregman and Jacobson’s first points is that people change all the time, especially in this era where the status quo is over. As they write:

“They make big changes like starting businesses, getting married, moving, or getting a new job. And they make smaller changes, like eating healthier, waking up earlier, or listening better.”

Bregman and Jacobson argue that change is something leaders should be actively pursuing. And, like so many things, you need a plan, you need processes, and you need time and patience. Change influence is a skill, not something you magically possess or don’t.

One of the biggest roadblocks to change, however, is shame. I told the authors that I could have read a whole book about society’s feeling of shame, which is a huge factor in people feeling unsafe at work.

Bregman shared that he viewed shame as “a deep feeling of insufficiency or deficiency in my being. If I feel shame, I feel like …  there’s something wrong with me. And my response to that is to keep it a secret. My response is to hide it. And what you hide, you can’t face.”

Have you ever tried to call someone out on something for their own good? You meant well but likely triggered that person’s sense of shame. They denied the charge, or even the possibility of a problem, and no progress was made. 

This book, in many ways, is about answering this question Bregman raises: “How do we help people have conversations about sensitive issues by raising them in ways that don’t catalyze the shame … to have the real conversation so that change can happen?”

Outcomes, partners and the 4 Steps

One of the challenges with anything resembling a self-help book is that the advice, on some level, is simple and/or obvious. The challenge is to take the inspirational and show a path to the practical.

This practicality is exactly what Bregman and Jacobson had in mind with “You Can Change Other People,” as they describe the book as “a user’s manual, meant to be as practical as possible.”

User manuals place responsibility on the user, but they don’t guilt-trip, threaten or condemn people when the journey gets difficult. Instead, they instruct so that the person can eventually act without the manual by their side. 

Bregman and Jacobson emphasize the importance of imagining outcomes and of thinking like an ally or partner, rather than a critic. A critic is an outsider who doesn’t ask for permission; a partner is in the room and has been invited. Meanwhile, thinking about the outcome you want helps visualize the endgame, makes it real and starts to bring it in focus.

What’s the Bregman-Jacobson plan? It’s what they call Four Steps. Those steps involve deliberate actions, and those actions themselves are underpinned by four concepts. 

Here are those concepts with a key quote from each description:

  1. Ownership: “[W]hen someone tries to impose their solution or advice on us, we tend to resist or, at best, execute half-heartedly.”
  2. Independent Capability: “[I]f someone comes to you with a recurring problem or one that requires their thinking and judgement, then giving them the answer or doing it for them will function as a crutch.”
  3. Emotional Courage: “Change is hard. And admitting that you need to change can be very hard. Facing colleagues, and asking for their help in making that change, can be extremely hard.”
  4. Resilience: “But we don’t just want people to change, we want them to transform their sticky problems and unfulfilled desires into an opportunity to get better, stronger, and more resilient for the future.”

And the Four Steps themselves are:

  1. “Shift from Critic to Ally” 
  2. “Identify an Energizing Outcome” 
  3. “Find a Hidden Opportunity” 
  4. “Create a Level-10 Plan”

Changing others starts with us

All those ideas are important, and each is thoroughly discussed in the book in terms of theory, of processes and of putting into practice. I asked Bregman and Jacobson more about the first step, “Shift from Critic to Ally,” because it seems like a prerequisite for everything else. 

Shifting from “critic/adversary” to “ally” can be frustrating, especially when we feel we are being an ally but the other person disagrees. And so the real work starts with ourselves. The book talks about the “body, mind, emotion and intent” components of being an ally, especially if we start off thinking like a critic or, alternately, feel like there’s nothing that can improve the situation. We have to prepare ourselves and find the positive intent before we try to understand their positive intent.

All of that work occurs before we even try to help (i.e. change) anyone. 

As the authors note, we really should be asking for permission to have a change conversation. Doing so increase the chances that such conversations go well and help us make “accountability” something people put into practice instead of being an after-action punishment.

(The pandemic has not made the first step any easier. Without the casual nature of in-person interactions, Bregman says, ““you have to be more intentional and perhaps more explicit,” which increases the complexity of change conversations. The book, with its dialogues and examples, could prove more vital in the COVID-19 era as a tool for overcoming physical distance.)

Change takes time, and patience is crucial

What I briefly described is only the first step of four, and we haven’t even gotten to the change part. Imagine the work required to complete the other three official steps!

You’re not alone in thinking, “All of this sounds like a lot of time.” I felt this, even as I know that’s a good thing. Real, meaningful advice is usually time-consuming to follow, unlike truisms or snake oil.

In the moment, change management can feel laborious or even hopeless. Bregman understands this concern and suggests that we should reinterpret what “change” looks like. “Change is immediate,” he says, from the very moment where you decide to do things differently.

“What are you going to do differently the minute after this call?” is an example of change, and it’s probably more helpful than thinking only about “a big conceptual dynamic that fundamentally shifts your entire world,” Bregman points out. 

That after-call action isn’t the change or the only change, for sure, But it’s a starting point that shouldn’t be ignored. “We do think of coaching, or these conversations, as teeing up an experiment,” Jacobson says.

Instead of a starting line and finish line, Bregman asks us to think instead of all the intermediate checkpoints in this journey: “What is the change progression from being a hands-on problem solver to being an inspirational leader?” It’s not one step, that’s for sure.

Think of both of those viewpoints: The long timeline and hard work of inducing change, and the knowledge that change is happening in many ways throughout. This dual mindset is important both for the changemakers and the people they’re trying to change.

And that’s where I want to end — to remind y’all about the importance of patience. 

I write a lot about being patient with ourselves and others, even as we continue to strive toward outcomes, accountability, etc. If you want to be a leader who changes people like Bregman and Jacobson advise, you have to be patient enough to gain their permission and to help them at every point along the journey.

You also have to be patient with yourself, to understand that change is in everything we do and not an on/off switch of “start” and “finish.” (This probably applies to strategic change, too!)

In a rapidly changing world, we have to find a way forward. What we control, as always, is how we show up and how we help others. 


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content. Contact him at @James_daSilva or by email.

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