Friday, April 1, 2016

You can bring a horse to water...

Trying to Convince People to Change


I was talking to a friend who was frustrated with one of her engineers. This engineer had a tendency to fall into some bad habits when stressed out, and my friend had given him a book to read on the topic, but he hadn't bothered to read it. Why not read the book, which would shortcut all of these conversations and corrections my friend needed to make over and over?

Are you familiar with this story? I am, having lived it several times. I have given my team various books to read over the years. Some of those books include:

Creative Mission Critical Synergy For Leadership
Turn the Ship Around
Leadership and Self Deception
Making Things Happen
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

I have even held reading groups for some of these, I wanted so much for my team to read them.

I love to read, and I have grown to love books in the "self-help/business/leadership" genre. These books have taught me a ton, heck, I blogged my defense of the repetitive business book because I find so much value in them. They're great!

However, getting value out of books like these is predicated on two important factors:

1) You have to actually read them
2) You have to read them with an open mind to learn from them


Asking my team to read books has had mixed results. The most successful book I tried to get folks to read was Turn the Ship Around. I read it with my leadership team, and we would discuss it in our team meetings. It is a book that is so deeply applicable to the practice of managing engineering teams that I think it was easy for my team to appreciate its value.

For most of the rest of the books, the people who were already interested in the topics read them, and the people who did not want to change what they were doing did not. Even when the doubters read them, they read them with a mind towards disagreeing with their message, and I'm not sure they got anything out of the books.

This is not a fun lesson, but it is an important one for anyone who is managing a team. You can't force people to want to change. You can give them information, books, classes, coaching, but if they don't see a need to change, none of that will help. So the first thing you have to do, before giving them books, is to really convince them that they need to change.

Ah, but this is tricky! Do they actually need to change? If they change, it will make your life easier. Will it make their life easier? 


Sometimes, we want people to change when in fact what needs to change is the situation we've put them in. If someone on your team is acting really negative, do they need to change their attitude? Or perhaps, do you need to move them to a team where they are not being ignored by their manager?

Before you look to change the people, make sure that the change that needs to happen isn't in fact something in the environment that you can control. 


Most people are going to behave in unhealthy ways when they are in unhealthy environments. Asking someone to change the way they react to stress is a tall order. Sure, it would probably be good for them to chill out, be nicer, stop blaming others for their problems, but I've been working on my unhealthy reactions to stress for years and I know I still have a long way to go. Even when people want to change, personal change doesn't happen overnight. It is usually easier for a manager to change the environment than it is to change a person's reaction to that environment.

Looking back to my successful reading suggestions, they have almost all come when people had control over their environment, and the book was about helping them drive change in the team. It is pretty rare that I've given an unhappy person a book for reacting better to unhappy circumstances and seen them embrace it.

Poor reactions to difficult situations can negatively impact the team and it's your job as a manager to help people identify these behavioral issues. Books can be great for this, but they are rarely going to shortcut the process of change. No matter what, don't forget to look at the circumstances that are triggering the behavior. It is unlikely that you'll coach your team to Buddha nature but you might be able to reduce the stress that is causing the problems in the first place, and that's a win for everyone.

4 comments:

  1. And I've had to realise: many engineers just don't like reading books as much as I do!

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  2. This is absolutely spot on. I'm one of those individuals who has a difficult time reading business books because my initial reaction is to pick the books apart unfairly. I will pick up 'Turn the Ship Around' and try not to be my worst enemy.

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  3. What a wonderful and insightful article! I really identify with having tried to push books and articles on people and frustrated that they just weren't that into it as I was. Didn't they see this would help or was beneficial?? Apparently not, I hadn't taken time to truly empathize with them and look at the environment and what possibly I had a control of before considering "they" had to change first. Thanks!

    And as Robert said, I'm going to check on that "Turn the Ship Around" book...

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