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The Only Way To Change People…


I was speaking to a group of CEO’s in New York City laqst week when one of them said “the only way to change people is to change people…”  Heads nodded all around.  This is a prevailing attitude that people don’t change — and if you don’t like who they are or what they do — the only way to get a different result is to get a different person.

True?  At Engagient we would disagree.

First, let’s acknowledge that there are employees who are so stuck in their ways or “shut down” in terms of their attitude or engagement that the cost or level of effort to turn them around simply isn’t justified.  They should be fired (and as quickly as possible before they infect others).

But to say that people don’t change is simply not true.  Solid science has now proven that the brain can indeed rewire itself — assuming the right conditions of course.

Nature vs. Nurture

We make a generalization about employees and how they behave.  Some employees do what they do because that is the way they are wired — it’s their “default” setting to behave the way they do.  This is certainly true for many highly engaged employees. It’s just their nature.

Other employees are different.  Their nature is more neutral  in terms of their daily motivation or engagement.  It’s not that they are not capable of it, it just isn’t who they are — unless their environment draws the desired behaviors out of them.

In short, a corporate culture or a great manager can change the very patterns of behavior employees bring to their work.  Ever had a boss that was so great and inspiring you’d do anything for them?  Ever work extra hard because you were motivated or inspired by a challenge or goal?

What we see with our clients is that truly great leaders take responsibility for how their employees perform.  If someome appears to be struggling (for whatever reason) they don’t jump to the conclusion that the employee is a “bad apple” who needs to be fired.  There is always a reason behind why a person behaves the way they do, and good leaders understand that there are a myriad of solutions beyond termination.

What would you rather have, a culture with a lot of employee churn (we worked with one firm that had 90% turnover in one location) — with all the costs of retraining and recruitment — or a more stable culture with little turnover and high performance?

High Performance Workplace Cultures

The fact is organizations with high performance cultures have higher levels of employee engagement because their very culture elicits better work behaviors. It isn’t because they are brilliant at finding job candidates that are all hard-wired for motivation (although better selection processes would certainly help). They create and sustain a workplace culture that encourages and nurtures the levels of engagement that compels employees to give more of their discretionary effort.  The result?  Passionate and loyal customers, happy employees, and a markedly improved bottom line on business fundamentals.

BEST PRACTICE — Take some responsibility for poor employee performance and try to separate between mediocre workplace conditions that do little to inspire good behavior and those employees who need to be fired.

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2 Responses to “The Only Way To Change People…”

  1. Ed Cox Says:

    I agree with your premise that there is always something we can do to help increase the engagement of employees.

    I often think about a continuum of employee attitudes from Disgruntled on one end, Compliant in the middle, and Dedicated on the other end.

    If there were an accurate way to measure the mean score along the continuum, I beleive that everything leaders do has an influence on where that mean score will be.


  2. drheem Says:

    Ed, Indeed there is a continuum. We measure employee engagement with a four way scale. We called the disgruntled the “Actively Disengaged” — and we describe them as the employee that have essentially quit (attitudinally) but they are still on the payroll. On the far right of the continuum is the “Actively Engaged” — who are volunteering their discretionary effort every day. We divide the middle into two groups, the “Somewhat Disengaged” and the “Somewhat Engaged.” The reason why it is so important to divide the middle up this way is primarily because this is where most employees can be found, and it is vital to know what side of the mean employees fall on. If most of the “middle” is in the Somewhat Disengaged category, the senior leadership team has a lot more heavy lifting to do!

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Don Rheem’s presentation on Employee Engagement gets underneath the real “whys” on the behavior of discretionary effort. I found his examples to be relative and understandable. I see how our leaders are making better connections with the hearts of our people, so everyone better understands the goals of the enterprise.

--Peter Rittenhouse, Director of Supply Chain
Nestle Waters
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