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  • Writer's picturePhil Cole

A Conversation Can Change a Life (THE LIST: You Can Change Other People)

Our focus as leaders is divided into two different, and seemingly contradictory, directions: our focus on changing our own behavior on one hand, and our focus on others’ actions within the group on the other. We change our behavior because that is the only way that we create a different outcome in the group, and yet our actions are directed to create an environment where others can act in productive, group-focused ways. This division is part of the challenge of leadership and is different than many other endeavors.

Fortunately, the process (and tools) that we use to change behavior in either place has a similar structure no matter our focus. This process is the subject of Peter Bregman and Howie Jacobson’s new book, You Can Change Other People: The Four Steps to Help Your Colleagues, Employees – and Even Family – Up Their Game.

Like all good leadership tools, You Can Change Other People allows us to see something that we may already know, but in a different and revealing manner. The four steps describe a process to encourage change in others: become an ally, identify an energizing outcome, find the hidden (growth) opportunity, and create a plan. This process contrasts with the two other approaches that we often take when discussing other people’s problems, status-quo-accepting agreement or critical answer-giving. At each step, You Can Change Other People offers detailed conversations with examples of specific roadblocks or paths to avoid. This focus on the practical is refreshing and helpful for a practitioner.

The supportive, growth-focused approach here is a concrete application of coaching and leadership. We may already practice this exploration and encouraging of others, but the mental model of the four steps allows us to understand why and how we might be more effective at what we have learned unconsciously.

There are a few points of particular relevance to improving our leadership practice. First, learning and behavioral change are complex processes with a great deal of emotional weight. If we want to succeed as leaders, however, we must understand these processes and the tools that make them easier and more effective. I have a separate article about the cycle of learning and behavioral change, which is necessary background.

Second, the value of clear outcomes cannot be overstated. The second step, where we help the other person identify what he or she wishes to accomplish, is critical to the success of growth. Without a clear description of a better outcome, it is impossible for us to identify the specific changes that we must make to get there. With that outcome, the nature of our mistakes and the replacement behaviors are revealed as if by magic. Facilitating others to this outcome-focused awareness is one of the most powerful things we offer as leaders, and it is also one of the most effective tools in our self-conduct toolbox. Clear outcomes lead to clear milestones and action steps, and there is not one single situation that benefits from a less-than-clear outcome or objective. This concept is similar to Anders Ericsson’s deliberate learning and the third learning cycle stage of generalization. It is also similar to functional leadership’s question, “What does the group need to be excellent?” which is really just a process-focused way to ask, “How does the group operate when it is excellent?”

Third, to be effective leaders, we must be able to separate behaviors from the motivations and intents that people assign to them. This is illustrated in the questions to the third step, find the hidden opportunity. (119-124). One member’s behavior creates emotion reactions in others, and these reactions build up over time to be relationships. However, the reaction is separate, and often assigns negative motivations to the person that do not actually exist. The question, “What’s happening now?” forces us to examine our assumptions, which is difficult, by demanding “hard facts”: examples of behaviors, “what people are saying and doing.” (117-119) Supporting others in their growth by asking this question is a powerful tool. We can modify an emotion reaction by changing the behavior or by introducing new information into the system, and this section of the book has some great tactics to do the latter. This examination is also supported by the function of vision: a clear shared vision allows us to communicate (and assume, at times) accurately. Groups with common visions are more likely to have positive emotion reactions. Providing support in both of these manners reduces interpersonal conflict.

Finally, the authors offer an insightful perspective on why the group arrives at certain patterns of behavior. They compare ineffective relationships to our brain's desire for sugar:

Many annoying workplace behaviors operate just like sugar - they are habits that solve a real problem in a short-term and suboptimal way.

As leaders, we must always remember that members of the group do not pick from the entire range of possible behaviors; they pick from what they can access, and almost always from their preferences. Understanding this, and introducing and reinforcing new behaviors that address the real organizational problem without negative side-effects is powerful leadership. To do this, we have to develop the clarity to see what really exists without judgment, and then to help others see it as well.

In a field full of self-focused personal change books, Bregman and Jacobson add a new twist backed up by solid information. You Can Change Other People is a useful tool as we understand both our own learning and behavioral change, and that of others. The writing is both accessible and also detailed; this is the kind of book one might buy and keep on the shelf as a reference to consult before a difficult conversation. When we learn to use these tactics to continuously pull others towards the three functions - what the group needs to be successful - then we will be better leaders.

Welcome to THE LIST!

Bregman, Peter and Howie Jacobson. You Can Change Other People: The Four Steps to Help Your Colleagues, Employees – and Even Family – Up Their Game. John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2022.

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