One side of an endless debate in human resources holds that people are basically stuck. As the old cartoon character Popeye would say, “I am what I am.” The proverbial statements “a leopard can’t change its spots” or “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” reinforce that idea as well. Then, on the other side, is the view that people have limitless potential for change. There are thousands of self-help books and the entire educational and development industry based on the premise that people have high abilities to grow and learn.
The debate would be merely interesting (or amusing) in the corporate world if it didn’t have such profound consequences on how people behave. There is interesting research emerging that shows managers who hold the view people can’t or won’t change are the ones who don’t pay much attention to the development of their subordinates. It makes perfect sense. If you don’t believe people have the capacity to change themselves to any significant degree, why bother investing time, money and effort in trying to develop them into something they’re not?
On the other hand, if you hold the view that humans are extremely malleable and that they can consciously improve a skill or acquire a new capability, it becomes worth the manager’s time to champion their employees’ development and play an active part in the process.
What does the data say?
Like many good debates, there’s data to support both points of view. Our company, Zenger Folkman, has a database of more than half a million 360 degree feedback instruments on about 50,000 managers and executives. Some of these individuals have also gone through the 360 degree feedback process for a second time, after following a leadership development program.
Forty-eight percent of those studied had scores that either stayed the same or declined over time. That could be taken as good evidence that people just don’t change all that much. (It may be cause by many other factors, however, including colleagues wanting to send an even stronger message or disappointment in the little change that had been observed.)
There’s another slightly larger group, however, that shows statistically significant higher scores over time. These individuals’ scores have increased much more than chance would predict. Anecdotally they will tell you they recognize a significant difference in their behavior between the 360 degree feedback events. They may have become better listeners. They often run more effective meetings. They are far more diligent about coaching their subordinates.
Another group we find interesting are the individuals who received some shockingly low scores on some behaviors. This has the effect of a whack on the side of the head in terms of getting a person’s attention. These people more often made a deliberate decision to fix the scores that were obviously dragging down the way they were perceived. We collected data on a group of those individuals, and the graph below shows the result. This was a group of 71 leaders, each of whom had received at least one score that was at or below the 10th percentile on one or more of the 16 primary leadership competencies. The leadership effectiveness percentile below is a composite of the total 16 competency scores.
Note the dramatic increase in overall effectiveness after a 12 to 18 month period of time. Can people change? This data sends a clear message that they can.
These changes also show up in improved employee engagement scores:
What can we conclude from all of this? We think there are some simple and powerful lessons in these results.
1. Those who receive a strong message are the most motivated to change, and most especially to change a behavior that distracts significantly from their overall performance.
2. Those who want to change can also make changes. While not always dramatic in magnitude, these changes occur because the individual has decided the change is important. This seems primarily to be a matter of will.
3. Many people don’t change, or they receive lower scores on a second 360 degree feedback process for a number of reasons. It may be that people wanted to send an even stronger signal to them the second time. Or they don’t want to improve. Maybe nothing grabs their attention and gives them a motivation to change.
Our conclusion is this: If you have been a leader in the camp that believes that people can’t change, we invite you to rethink your assumptions. There’s good evidence that people can make dramatic changes in their behavior. It is a choice. Our research also confirms that the manager’s involvement and interest in the development of subordinates is a powerful force towards make successful change happen.
In other words, your belief in whether subordinates can improve and change is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Based on this evidence, for may reader it is their underlying belief system that requires the primary change.