Skip to main content

You can’t change other people. You can only change yourself.

That’s a widely held belief, often supported by our personal experiences. Early in our supervisory careers, enthusiastic and eager for better results, we try to change those who seem to be derailing our efforts. We fail, and after a few attempts, retreat to not trying to change others any more.

But consultant Peter Bregman argues you can change other people. It’s probably the most important capability a leader can develop. You just need to follow the right steps.

The first is to shift from critic to ally. “This is the magic move,” he declares in his book You can Change Other People. “It gets you to the place where your conversation partner agrees to receive your help.”

Obviously that’s not easy, in part because we enjoy being critics. It gives us superiority in our own mind. It allows us to escape responsibility for the situation. But we have to move past that critical stance and become a supporter of the person we want to help – without, he stresses, becoming a collaborator, excusing detrimental behaviour.

So pay some attention to your intent, the emotions you carry, and the signals your body sends when working with the other individual. Find the positive intent behind your negative emotions. Why do you care? What is the outcome you are seeking? What would it be like to be in the other person’s shoes, and how can you help?

“Give yourself time to shift from critic to ally, even if it takes days to flip the switch. Allow yourself time to feel all the feelings and find the positive intent and shared commitment that underpins them,” he says.

Now seek permission to help. That’s in line with the notion that people don’t resist change but resist being changed by others. Seeking permission hands them control. “You may be the world’s greatest coach, consultant, adviser, strategist or motivator, but if you don’t receive permission from the person you want to help, you’ve doomed the effort to failure,” he warns. On the positive side, even if you’re a beginner at trying to change others, gaining permission will greatly increase the odds of success.

The formula for silver-platter opportunities – when the person comes to you for help, advice or to complain – is: empathize with whatever requires empathy. That doesn’t mean agreeing with their perspective, just understanding their situation. Express confidence in their ability to handle the situation. Finally, offer to think it through with them.

If you don’t get a silver-platter opportunity, you will need to seek permission. The best way to do that is to stress at the outset the outcome or value that might come from the conversation -- how things will be better. Don’t try to soften the blow by getting to the point indirectly. Be up front.

Here’s an example, approaching a man who has been rude, bossy and aggressive with others. “Hey, Ken, do you have a minute to talk? I’d like to improve the performance of our team and I think your contributions could be key. I’d like to talk with you about what’s getting in the way.”

If the other person cannot or does not want to talk at this point, seek permission to schedule the conversation at a later date. Another possibility is that they will react defensively, agreeing to talk but expecting an attack. To handle that, you need to acknowledge that the problem is bigger than they are – other team members, even you, are contributing to the situation – and then empathize with whatever you can. Apologizing for your own contribution to the situation can be helpful.

Don’t rely on your positional power. Technically you don’t need your employee’s permission to offer guidance, advice and help. But how has that been working for you so far?

Seeking permission is the toughest step, so you’ll then be eager to jump in and share advice or brainstorm solutions. But he argues the problem you are obsessed with is just a signpost pointing to the outcomes you want. If you solve the problem, even together, without identifying the outcome you want, you will fall short. So the second step is to take time to identify that “energizing outcome,” as he puts it. It should be positive, clear and meaningful – inspirational and exciting. It will help get past the defensive instinct of the other party to a willingness to discover.

In the third step you return to the problem but use it as an opportunity to achieve the outcome in a creative and unexpected way. You want a new approach to handle the problem. They shouldn’t be learning from you but with you.

This step is built around three lines of inquiry. What’s happening now? You need to take a detailed look at the problem. What have you tried? Create a complete list of attempted solutions. How can you use the problem to achieve the energizing outcome? Study the issue, and try to unravel the opportunity it might offer.

The final step, of course, is to make a workable plan to change the situation. “It doesn’t have to be the right or perfect plan. It just has to be one that has a reasonable chance of success and from which they can learn and improve,” he says.

There’s no guarantee it will work. But there’s probably a guarantee if you do nothing than the situation won’t improve unless the person leaves your department or organization. And if your own method for changing people has flopped in the past it probably will the next time you use it. So there’s the irony: To change someone else, you have to change yourself – your approach to such situations.


  • A Gallup survey during the pandemic found people working six-day weeks had the highest rates of burnout – 38 per cent reported feeling burned out often or always. Among those working five days a week, 26 per cent fell into those categories compared with slightly less, 23 per cent, of those with four day work weeks. Interetsingly, the percentage of engaged workers was similar across the three work week conditions studied but the percentage of actively disengaged workers was highest for those with four-day and six-day work weeks.
  • Executive coach Dan Roickwell suggests asking yourself: What are my first repsonses to the failures of others?
  • It may be well-meaning to advise your staff, “tell me when I’m wrong,” but Bryant University professor Michael Roberto says inviting people to openly oppose you doesn’t necessarily create the type of constructive dialogue and debate you envision. Instead, try: What questions do you have about this proposal? What assumptions do you think might need further testing and validation? How might this plan go off track? Here’s how I see this scenario unfolding -- what am I missing?

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe