Why Won’t My Employees Change?

CHANGE MATTERSYOU’VE PROBABLY had this happen to you more than once. You know, where you give a person feedback because either they asked for it, or because they work directly for you and you regularly give your staff feedback. So you give them feedback, they thank you and then…nothing happens. There is no change in behavior nor is there any improvement in that area. You are frustrated so you have the conversation again, and again nothing happens. You are stumped. You feel like you couldn’t have been clearer; you even gave them examples. And still, nothing. You are frustrated and a little angry. You don’t understand what the problem is, you feel like you’ve done your part and don’t understand why your employee isn’t meeting you halfway. You ask yourself: ‘What is going on?’ You might even use an expletive or two if it is particularly frustrating. But the truth is that there are many reasons why people don’t change based on feedback. The most commonly assumed one is: I don’t want to change.

Let’s start where many managers start. Often when I’m called for advice about an employee it is because the manager has decided that the reason the person isn’t changing based on feedback is that the person doesn’t want to change. And they want me to come in and turn that situation around.

I have to say; I have never found that to actually be the case. Yes, there are people who are not planning on changing, no matter what kind of feedback they get from you or the consequences of not changing. Some of them might actually work for you. But, I have found those individuals are pretty open about the fact that they aren’t going to change because they feel their good points outweigh any of the negatives of the behavior in question. My guess is that you already know who those individuals are on your staff. This person probably isn’t one of them. Especially if they asked YOU for feedback.

[message type=”custom” width=”100%” start_color=”#F0F0F0 ” end_color=”#F0F0F0 ” border=”#BBBBBB” color=”#333333″]The reason for not changing based on feedback is actually one that I find people don’t consider: I don’t know how to change [/message]

I have often found that the reason no change is made based on feedback is because the person actually doesn’t now how to change that behavior to something else. So they nod, they take you seriously but they are just at a loss. As one person once said to me, ‘don’t you think that if I knew how to do it differently I would?’ The critical missing component here is the second part of the feedback discussion. Not asking, ‘do you understand?’ but rather, ‘do you know how to change the behavior?’ Often that question doesn’t get asked because the (wrong) assumption around feedback is that once a person is aware they will know how to change it. That is a wrong assumption. As a manager you need to actually assume that your employee doesn’t know how to do it differently, whatever ‘it’ is. You need to assume that they need some help in how to change their behavior for a different outcome. Just telling them they need to change isn’t enough.

For example, let’s say the feedback is that they don’t do a good job in inspiring others to do what they are asking. They have been basically micro-managing their team to get results because that is the only way they know how to do it. So you give them the feedback and expect that miraculously they will stop micro-managing. That is a pretty tall order. Instead of walking away after the feedback, engage your employee in conversation. What does ‘inspire others’ mean to them? What could it look like? How is that different than what they are doing now? How might it look different? Give them a specific situation and ask them to specifically tell you how it looks different. Then ask them how they would feel about trying that new behavior. (hint: the answer is probably ‘scared’) Talk through that and then ask how you can help and enable that new behavior. Ask if there is anything in your behavior that might prevent that from happening. Then set some specific goals and agree to observe and give specific feedback in the short term.

Yes, it takes longer for that solution and sometimes you might feel that you ‘shouldn’t’ have to have that kind of conversation. But you do need to because it is really the only way to teach new behavior. You know from experience that just saying ‘change’ doesn’t work – even though you might wish that it would.

[message type=”custom” width=”100%” start_color=”#F0F0F0 ” end_color=”#F0F0F0 ” border=”#BBBBBB” color=”#333333″] The second most popular reason I find for an individual not changing based on feedback is: they don’t hear you.[/message]

Yes, they might acknowledge what you said. They might even tell you that they understand it. But they really don’t and they really didn’t absorb what you said. That might be because they aren’t ready yet to hear what you are saying. Or they hear the words but it goes against their vision of themselves that they just can’t accept it. And you might have only asked them ‘do you understand?’

A way to truly see if your employee is hearing you is to ask the individual to feed back to you what you said, in his or her own words. You probably know this, but you might not be in the habit of doing it. Because it is so clear to you, you might not think it is necessary. You might also ask them to talk about what it means to him or her. A person who really didn’t ‘hear’ you will have difficulty with that. They might also have a completely different understanding to what you just said. Either way that opens up an opportunity for continuing the dialogue…and the learning, on both sides.

I once worked with an individual who had received the same feedback over the years from multiple people in multiple jobs. But this only came out when I conducted a narrative 360 and talked to previous managers. What I discovered in conversation with this individual is that they had never ‘heard’ what was being said because it so conflicted with their vision of themselves that it just didn’t compute. They didn’t ever refute it because they were taught to never contradict their ‘superiors’. And not one of their managers ever asked them to demonstrate that they were heard. This individual would just be given the feedback with no additional conversation. This made it was especially hard when I gave them the feedback and did just that – I asked them to tell me what they heard and what it meant to them. And then we were faced with the double issue that their whole vision of themselves was changed AND they truly didn’t know how to change their behavior. It took much more time, and effort on everyone’s part for changes to be made.   And it showed the current and previous managers the downside to not checking early on as to what the person was hearing and what they thought about it.

This is the time of year that you are having ‘year end’ conversations with your employees. It is a great opportunity to change your behavior as well and actively support changes with individuals on your staff, and in turn your whole team.


Beth Banks Cohn
Beth Banks Cohn
BETH is dedicated to helping individuals and companies implement business changes that actually work. Beth believes in the ripple effect – that change handled well benefits everyone in an organization, over and over again. As a recognized expert in change as well as corporate culture, Beth consults domestically and internationally with a wide range of disciplines and businesses. Beth is the author of two books: ChangeSmart™: Implementing Change Without Lowering your Bottom Line and Taking the Leap: Managing Your Career in Turbulent Times…and Beyond (with Roz Usheroff).

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  1. I work with a wide range of people from different disciplines and levels in corporate hierarchies. To get people to change always requires you to do something memorable. You must do something that people will constantly remember each and every day. It can be a picture. It can be a story. It can be you just acting the way you are, motivating them to “act just like you”. People need to remember. And that’s the trick.

    And it’s not easy. Even if you’re highly likable, that is not enough. People think in small things, not big pictures. So we must provide them with these small things that scaffold to the big picture. Easier said than done.

    • Thanks Chris for weighing in. I’m curious what kind of picture gets people to change? And when you say “motivating them to ‘act just like you'” are you talking about acting according to standards that others are also using, or something more individualized?

      I agree being likable is never enough, although it surely helps. In my experience though, I have seen that people are capable of seeing the ‘big picture’ if it is clear and compelling enough. I’m wondering about your experience that “people think in small things” and would like to hear more.

    • I was touching on the psychology of how people understand something. We don’t look at the whole big picture. We look at chunks of it, then reassemble the big picture in our heads. So depending on life experience, emotions, and analytical brain power we will each construct a different picture in our heads. Now, there is thinking with just our eyes. That image can almost get burned into our memories immediately. But once we get hit with chunking, the gaps we create when reassembling the big picture will impede massive change efforts.

      There are presentation and visual tricks to get people to assembling the correct pictures in their heads. There is also language too. A lot of people write these things off as “style” so they just mimic in without knowing how to use it. Then multi-billion dollar things fail.