Do People Really Change?

We have all heard the statement in one context or another that “people cannot change” or “we are who we are.”  Most of us have probably made this statement at some point in our lives about a coworker, subordinate, or even family member.  More than likely, the statement arose from a sense of frustration regarding a repetitive behavior you wanted to change in a person.  At that moment, most of us would conclude that people cannot change.  However, in reality people can change some things about themselves some of the time.  What does that really mean? Overall, research has shown that about 10 percent of people are capable of true change.  Thus, change can occur, but it is rare.

What is behind the inability to change? One of the most common explanations is that as we age, we become more set in our ways and gravitate toward what is comfortable by default.  The reason for this is that our brain dislikes change by design and prefers repetition due to the need for safety and conservation of energy.  When change occurs, the brain enters a state of conflict and experiences cognitive dissonance.  The anterior cingulate cortex detects the conflict between the new method of doing things and what we are used to doing and wants to fix it.  Put simply, in order to fix the discrepancy, the brain attempts to default to the usual way of doing things.

What are some of the major exceptions that adults experience?  As adults, we typically think of people changing in three major and rather dramatic ways: migration through the normal transformations of life, falling under the influence of others, or changing one’s path.

As a person moves through the normal phases of life (childhood, being a young adult, working, having a family, reaching middle age, and attaining old age), attitudes, beliefs, and interests change.  Although we may keep certain core personality characteristics, the very nature of what worries us and our reaction to those worries evolves.  Psychologists have found that as we age, we actually begin to revert more to genetic as well as early observational tendencies as a method of dealing with change in ourselves.  In other words, we return to what we know.  That is a big reason why we reach the point that at times we hear the words of our father or mother coming out of our own mouths.

Most of us have seen friends, coworkers, or even family members change as they are influenced by others.  Most of us at a young age probably heard from our mothers: “who we spend time with is who we will be like.”  This warning regarding the “company that we keep” applies to adults almost as much as children.  The social nature of humanity instills a certain amount of desired convergence on our part.  Just as a teenager that does not curse will start to curse more if exposed to that type of language to converge with the norm, an adult will take on the interests of those around them.

Although it might be assumed that the last four or five decades of US history has the monopoly on adults selecting alternatives paths,  this tendency has arisen in a variety of places and historical periods.  Life events, changes in circumstances, and high levels of uncertainty have led to people making a big change in their life.  Obviously, higher levels of affluence, more societal equality, less interdependence, and different social norms have made these major changes easier.  However, it is the individual that makes the decision to embrace the change and many times there is an event-based catalyst that begins the process.

Clearly, each of the aforementioned types of change impacts the workplace.  The most common examples are:

  • The hardworking and risk acceptant qualities of youth give way to a more incremental and stability-focused approach.  The majority of the literature dealing with the different generations in the workforce addresses not only accepted norms, but the impact of period of life.  Our needs and desires change with age and an employer that fails to account for those differences will find that it is maximizing the results of a small segment of its workforce only.  We have to constantly customize how we engage and interact if want to be as successful as possible.
  • Pockets of disengagement or dissatifiscation can spread like a cancer through an organization.  We all know of examples of organizations that imploded and became a workplace of drudgery and dread because of a select number of unhappy employees.  It is not enough to assume that the disenchanted are a small group and can be easily marginalized.  We have to be proactive.
  • Stress, conflict, and unreasonable expectations can lead to people dramatically changing predispositions to work or even just walking out no matter the cost or sensibility.  When a workplace becomes overbearing or even caustic, people start to consider options they would not have under different circumstances.  This is not change that we want and we need to be careful to prevent it.
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