Coaching: Can You Change Someone Who Does Not Want to Change? Part II

We consider the statement “you can’t change people who don’t want to change” a truism.

When I started facilitating change, if someone needed to transform it was believed that it was the change agent’s job to give direction and insight, but it was the client’s job to implement or acquire the change. Developments in neuroscience make the answer simple: it should be the change agent’s job to guide organizations on how to lead to the commitment needed, how to overcome resistance, and how to go about change so that it is implemented and acquired quickly and in a lasting way. Facilitating change is a profession, not an intuitive practice based on intuition alone. Change agents should be able to offer practical solutions that take into account predicting and overcoming the obstacles to change.

Thanks to science, some challenges that didn’t have good enough solutions in the past can now be addressed differently:

  • Your team is fully aware of needed changes and seems to agree, but agreement and awareness aren’t followed by execution.
  • A manager is unwilling to acknowledge change is needed, which affects the moral and productivity of the manager’s team.
  • Your organization’s brilliant, technically valuable manager doesn’t work well with others, in spite of extensive coaching and training.
  • The multi-million dollar IT initiative is technically complete, but the new hardware is being used as a paperweight and employees are not using the new system.
  • You inherited a “difficult” team and despite your best efforts you find they are very difficult to manage and motivate.
  • Your organization is implementing a change (new culture/ six sigma processes/new regulations) but key people are not budging from the old way of doing things.

What is it that we know about brain science now that allows us to solve these challenges?

1. Implicit vs. explicit systems: in the past change was focused solely on engaging the explicit system in the brain. There is substantial research showing that both explicit AND implicit systems in the brain need to be engaged in order to achieve behavioral change. Many organizations and change efforts are already applying this principle. I had a great conversation a couple of weeks ago with the strategic wing of the HR department of Life Technologies, a Carlsbad-based large international biotech corporation. The leadership of the organization sees inclusion as a very important value and are trying to create a culture of inclusion (they have high diversity because of their international scope). In order to do that, the HR department is sharing with employees the experiences and experience-based vision of some of the leaders in the organization who embody inclusion. Another great example is Adobe: trying to create a comprehensive culture of customer experience management by collecting and sharing  case studies and examples of client success stories with employees to engage the implicit system. Changing people who don’t want to change by using this approach is consistently shown to work. The problem with using this as a stand-alone strategy though, is time. If you use only the principles relating to the implicit/explicit systems in the brain, you can expect that changing people who don’t want to change to take very long time. It’s important to remember that sometimes time can be the kiss of death for change. Not only is change sometimes much more urgent, but often keeping the energy needed in order to sustain change at a high enough level is draining, and the investment in the change effort dwindles with time to the point where it cannot achieve it’s potential.

1. The difference between learning and unlearning: A second critical component for the implementation of most change efforts is unlearning. Think about the steps you go through every time you learn something brand-new. Learning to ride a bike or cook for the very first time are good examples. What does learning require? How do you learn to DO something new? Now think about unlearning something. – changing your eating habits or time management habits are good examples. What does unlearning require? Which steps do you have to follow? It turns out there are five stages the brain goes through naturally to unlearn something (see: When people don’t change it’s because they get stuck on one of the five stages. Models on unlearning are used widely in areas from rehabilitation to language skills. Leading a coachee through the five stages expedites unlearning, making room for new response patterns (leading to new behavioral habits). Taking teams through the process of unlearning requires guidance, but once managers master it, the process itself is repeatable.  Without unlearning, people will resist change in a variety of different ways, both visible and invisible.

1. Managing resistance: traditional coaching models, like most change models, are designed to do everything to avoid resistance. We try to define goals upfront, try to connect with the motivation of the coachee, try to create transparency and trust. This is fantastic when the project does not have to deal with people who don’t want to change. In such cases, resistance is initially the main theme and most typically your coachee will not agree he/she is resisting in the way others see it. It is, hence, imperative to focus on changing their resistance response (KCI’s diagnosis is unique because it identifies which healthy resistance response a team needs, not what is wrong with the team, and then gets people to acquire this new resistance response). It is imperative to control when resistance will come up, what it will be directed to etc.

Our facilitators are certified to make change happen when other models fail. The solution we use is NOT better- it’s just different. It’s designed for a different purpose, to work to solve challenges we, as change agents, couldn’t solve well before. Thanks to developments in brain science, organizational development, coaching and other change professions  no longer have to say the client “isn’t committed enough” or “isn’t ready.” It is the profession of change agents to facilitate commitment and readiness but only a few years ago, this promise was out of reach. Thankfully, brain science provides most needed answers, making it possible for professionals and managers to orchestrate and facilitate a positive alternative for remedial coaching.

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