Change Anything: A Leader’s Guide to Improving Employee Performance

The October Surprise

In October 2006, Geoff received startling news. His new manager announced in his performance review that his colleagues hated working with him. While he was pleasant, his coworkers reported that he promised everything but delivered nothing. And yet, for six years, no one, not even his boss, dared tell him the truth.

When Geoff’s former boss left, his new boss was inundated with complaints about Geoff. So, she put him on a “performance improvement plan.” In spite of his initial herculean effort, his improvement over time was spotty. In 2007, he was put on probation. In 2008, as worldwide unemployment soared, Geoff was shown the door.

The Real Pandemic

Geoff’s story is a symptom of a global pandemic: leaders’ inability to help their employees change their poor performance—a missing competency that drags corporate performance by as much as 40 percent. Some of the most pernicious, pervasive, though completely solvable, barriers to improved performance exist because of leaders’ collective inability to influence human change.

Ironically, social scientists have amassed a remarkable body of knowledge about why people do what they do and how to change for the better. But leaders are shockingly disconnected from scholarly solutions and when their change efforts fall flat, they attribute the failure more to human nature than personal ignorance.

Trapped, Blind and Outnumbered

A useful science of personal success is one that not only explains failures, but also leads to rapid and sustainable human change. We’ve uncovered such a model in our new book, Change Anything.

Our model begins by identifying a trap nearly every human falls prey to: “the willpower trap”—the fundamental belief that personal motivation is everything. This mode of thinking surfaces in our efforts to influence employees when the primary tool we use to create change is the performance review. Once a year, we let employees know their job is at risk in an attempt to help them overcome their “obvious” lethargy about their career.

Our model also suggests people do what they do for six reasons—not one. And that people fail to change not because they lack the will, but because they’re blind and outnumbered to those six sources of influence that shape their choices.

Let’s take Geoff, for example. Geoff struggled to prioritize and manage his projects. The “willpower” model might lead us to conclude he’s a “pleaser.” He sets himself up for failure by making too many unrealistic promises.

But what if the problem isn’t just his personal motivation? What if there is also an ability gap?

Personal Ability: Geoff lacks scripts for either saying “no” or negotiating reasonable deadlines. He wants to prioritize but doesn’t know how to be both supportive and realistic.

If change requires too much will, it’s often because we lack key skills. Adding skills can substantially increase the likelihood of change. And we’re just getting started.

Geoff doesn’t behave in a vacuum. Social influences are strong. For example:

Social Motivation: Powerful colleagues abuse their authority to press for commitments that violate agreed-upon prioritization processes.

Social Ability: Geoff’s former boss rarely backed Geoff up when he complained of these issues. Over time, he gave up on asking for support.

Notice that if you only motivate Geoff then throw him back into an inhospitable social system, his odds of success are quite low.

Finally, we outnumber Geoff by putting him into an environment that powerfully incentivizes and enables his behavior.

Structural Motivation: After being dinged by a few colleagues on a 360 evaluation who thought he wasn’t helpful, Geoff overcompensated by trying to please everyone.

Structural Ability: Geoff has no system for tracking projects. He tries to juggle his e-mails in folders but loses track of requests older than a few days.

How to Change Anything

In 2008, we published a study of more than 2,000 attempts to influence change both in a corporate context and in people’s personal lives. We found those who engaged all six sources of influence in their attempt to produce change were ten times more successful (MIT Sloan Management Review, 2008).

We need not live in a world where people like Geoff struggle against a tide of influences for six years only to be sacked. When leaders come to understand the science of personal success, they can literally change anything.


About Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is the coauthor of the New York Times bestsellers Crucial Conversations, Influencer, and Crucial Confrontations. This April he released Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success. He is the cofounder of VitalSmarts. www.changeanythingbook.com

Category: Leadership Talent Management

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About the Author: Joseph Grenny

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