HR Blog

You can change a tire, but you can’t change a person

By Dee Yingst

It can be hard to accept that some people just are who they are and no amount of coaching can change that.

Many years ago, a gentleman applied for a lead sales/consulting position in the agency in which I worked. Because I was familiar with this individual, my manager asked me for my thoughts on his suitability for the role. I commented that his technical skills were quite good but I was concerned about his interpersonal skills. When asked for more detail, the only way I could articulate my comment was to say he’s the type that would be nice to you, but rude to the waiter. He didn’t get the job.

So the question becomes, can you coach certain attributes out of a person?

It’s like the old joke: How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb? Just one, but only if the lightbulb really wants to change.

The answer, I believe, is that time-tested response: it depends. It can be very difficult to sort out what is coachable and what isn’t. Some things are just hard-wired, like the ‘nice to you but rude to the waiter’ behavior. Oh, I’ll grant you that you can train someone to outwardly be “nice” but can you be sure you’re not just helping someone perfect faking sincerity? Certainly there are those who honestly don’t see they are coming across that way and are aghast at the notion – those people you can coach. The ones who see no issue with their behavior – not so much.

The key, I think, is getting to the root of the behavior. That’s often not an easy thing to do but it’s absolutely worth the effort. Here are two of my experiences:

  • An otherwise good employee who showed up either late or at the absolutely last second and was completely frazzled. We didn’t just write her up; we asked her what’s going on. In this case, we found that when we adjusted her start time 30 minutes later she was on time (most days a little early) and instead of being frazzled, she was focused and ready to work.
  • A good manager with exceptional skills in his operational area who (ahem) did not express frustration to his staff appropriately. We discovered he’s historically had difficulty in this communication area and was genuinely and earnestly interested in finding a better way. We sent him to the EAP to learn better interpersonal skills. He surprised us all with how well he did and how hard he worked to heal his relationships with his staff members.

So those are two success stories, but they don’t all work out that way. There are times when you just have to accept that the behavior you’re seeing is simply a reflection of who that person genuinely is. They don’t see an issue with their behavior and they have no interest in changing.

I think it’s the hardest lesson of all for HR (and managers for that matter) is to accept that you just can’t save them all. It doesn’t mean the employee in question is a “bad person”, just that they’re not the right person for the job (or the organization).  In those cases, you’re really helping everyone by separating the employment so the organization can find who it needs and the employee can find a better fit for them. When you get to that place the most important thing to remember is to allow the individual to move out/move on with dignity. There’s no need to be harsh, just let them know you’ve reached the end of the line and it’s time for them to move on. Not a fun conversation, but a necessary one.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have encountered a few folks (with whom I’ve had that conversation) some time later and they’ve told me it was actually a really good turning point for them. HR rarely gets thanked for separating someone’s employment, so when it happens it’s pretty amazing.