Why Do We Accept the Idea That You Can't Change People Who Don't Want to Change?

We are never going to always be able to change people who don’t want to change. Thankfully, or hopefully, in a business environment, people will always have the choice not to cooperate. We morally oppose the idea of changing people who don’t want to change. But there are many situations in which doing our damnedest to change people who don’t want to change is the right thing to do.

One great example is IT implementation. Good IT systems take a lot of effort, time and money to develop, and yet most are very difficult to implement. Not so much because there is anything wrong with the system. More often it is because people resist in many visible and invisible ways making a shift from using old systems to using new ones.

I attended a meeting recently that brought together representatives of a few IT development companies and representatives of First Response units. IT representatives tried to learn more about the needs of the different First Response units, and truth be told, they had gone a long way to make the devices for dispatch teams extremely easy to operate. The representatives of the First Response units – doctors, fire fighters etc. – were explaining their challenge: nurses and fire fighters are used to using different systems every day and are blocked from using the new systems when they run into it for the first time in an emergency. As the only change expert in the room, I had to ask: “Since it is virtually impossible  to make sure that the systems used in the ‘office’ are the same as the ones used in the field, and since the devices are already pretty simple, wouldn’t it make sense to give people the abilities that will get them to be flexible enough to use both?”

Do you believe it would hurt  the amazing people of First Response teams if  we got them to be more flexible (even if initially they don’t want to be – and I assure you, in working with them, some of them don’t)? How about getting people who work for a job less emergency-oriented or health-related? Assuming it’s a good system, is it not okay to expect that people start using the new IT system the company invested in?

So why do we accept the idea that you can’t change people who don’t want to change?

Other than the belief that we are crossing an ethical line, which I believe we are not, two reasons come to mind:

1. Because without the right tools it cannot be done, we assume it cannot be done: this reminded me of cancer treatments. There was a time when most cancer patients died, if not from the cancer, from radiation and if not from radiation, from getting a cold while their immune system was down. Most people with cancer died back then, but instead of thinking it can’t be done, we kept trying. Today no one would be okay with treating all cancer patients the same. Not only are the treatments for different families of cancer different (treating melanoma is very different than treating lymphoma) but treatments are specified within a family (different types of lymphoma are now treated differently). If we kept treating all cancer patients the same, we could conclude that you can’t cure cancer patients. In the same way, if we don’t develop solutions for people who don’t want to change and try using traditional solutions (that were designed for people who do want to change) we will keep assuming it can’t be done.

2. Psychology as the mother or coaching and organizational development: Daniel Siegel, one of my favorite authors about brain science and change as it applies to parenting and family dynamics, is a great example. I pick on Daniel both because I have tremendous appreciation for his work and because he is very savvy in neuroscience. But the models Daniel uses go against science in one specific area. Psychology was based on the notion that if you bring something to people’s awareness, they will be able to will change into happening. Here’s the thing: there is substantial research showing that behavioral change takes place while the brain is engaging the subconscious mind. We need to engage the implicit system too (the experience-based system in the brain) in order to lead to behavioral change, and this system is tied to subconscious activity in the brain. Psychology is designed to bring something from the implicit system (subconscious) to awareness (consciousness) and then you need to direct it back from the consciousness to create a subconscious change. Imagine you had to fix something deep in the ocean and you had a submarine in the deep. What we are doing under the influence of psychology (I think) is getting the submarine all the way up to the surface; we make sure it’s floating in order to tell the staff what’s wrong and then we ask them to dive right back all the way down. Wouldn’t it make sense to come up with some technology that would communicate with the sub while it’s in the deep?

Now that brain science has made so much progress, it’s high time we evaluate our own paradigms about change!


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