Are People Changeable, Or Are They Cast In Cement?

Apr 11 2014, 8:17am CDT | by

Are People Changeable, Or Are They Cast In Cement?
Photo Credit: Forbes Business

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:
Lessons learned
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.

To read more about this study go to the Zenger Folkman Leadership Resource Center. Please join this discussion on self-improvement below or on my Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

How to Overcome Your Fear of Change at Work

 
 

Don't miss ...

 

<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/30" rel="author">Forbes</a>
Forbes is among the most trusted resources for the world's business and investment leaders, providing them the uncompromising commentary, concise analysis, relevant tools and real-time reporting they need to succeed at work, profit from investing and have fun with the rewards of winning.

 

blog comments powered by Disqus

Latest stories

Indian helping to light up Gambia (Diaspora Feature)
Banjul (Gambia), Nov 22 (IANS) Like many Indians who are proving to be philanthropists around Africa, Ram Mohan has set up a social business called Comafrique Intelizon Initiative and has embarked on the replacement of candles in villages in the Gambia with solar lights from India.
 
 
Leopards in human areas not conflict animals: Study
New Delhi, Nov 22 (IANS) Leopards in human areas are not always "stray" or "conflict" animals but residents with strategies to thrive in human dominated areas, says the first GPS-based study of leopards in India.
 
 
Golf courses are hotspots for ticks
Washington, Nov 22 (IANS) Golf courses are prime habitats for ticks, the tiny bloodsucking creatures, says a new study.
 
 
How tweets can gauge unemployment levels
London, Nov 22 (IANS) How people tweet during day and night can be used to gauge unemployment levels, a new study suggests.
 
 
 

Latest from the Network

Leopards in human areas not conflict animals: Study
New Delhi, Nov 22 (IANS) Leopards in human areas are not always "stray" or "conflict" animals but residents with strategies to thrive in human dominated areas, says the first GPS-based study of leopards in India. The...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
Burj Khalifa, the site for world's highest selfie
London, Nov 22 (IANS) Taking the selfie phenomenon to a new level, a 47-year-old British photographer captured an image of himself on top of Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the tallest man-made structure in the world. Taking...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
'Exodusa' my biggest project: Ridley Scott
Los Angeles, Nov 22 (IANS) Filmmaker Ridley Scott, popular for his work in "Gladiator", "Aliensa and "Prometheus", says his upcoming English film "Exodus: Gods and Kings" is the biggest project of his career even...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
Nisha Desai Biswal headed to India ahead of Obama visit
Washington, Nov 22 (IANS) US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Nisha Desai Biswal is heading to India Monday ahead of President Barack Obama's January visit to join India's Republic Day parade as chief...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
Golf courses are hotspots for ticks
Washington, Nov 22 (IANS) Golf courses are prime habitats for ticks, the tiny bloodsucking creatures, says a new study. Ticks like to feed at the boundaries between the woods and open spaces - the kind of settings...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
Report clears Obama administration on Benghazi attack
Washington, Nov 22 (IANS) A two-year Congressional probe into an attack on a US diplomatic post in Libya's Benghazi city has cleared the Obama administration of accusations of mishandling its response, media reports...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
How tweets can gauge unemployment levels
London, Nov 22 (IANS) How people tweet during day and night can be used to gauge unemployment levels, a new study suggests. Data analysis of Twitter activity can actually determine how many people in a given...
Read more on Business Balla
 
Selfie stick in Time magazine's best inventions list
Washington, Nov 22 (IANS) The selfie stick that facilitates your capturing a selfie from an angle of your choice by positioning your smartphone beyond the arms' reach has made it to the Time magazine's list of 25 best...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
Liverpool plan to sign West Bromwich's Berahino
London, Nov 22 (IANS) Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers wants Saido Berahino to solve his goalscoring problems in January. The Reds boss has identified the West Bromwich Albion (WBA) striker as the man he wants to add...
Read more on Sport Balla
 
Release Of Al Jazeera journalists will confirm regional realignment (Comment: Special to IANS)
My crystal ball tells me that the three Al Jazeera journalists, incarcerated in Cairo for the past six months, are about to be released. The three were part of Egypt's most powerful news bureau during the brief...
Read more on Politics Balla