How To Change People (4 tips)

Apr 18, 2022 | Change, Leadership

At some point, we have all wanted to change people.

But we also can’t directly control what people think and do. (Sorry if that feels like a spoiler, but you already knew that.)

Instead, we can take steps that cause positive change in people, teams and even in a culture.

It begins – as all change ultimately does – with changing what we can control.

#1 – shift the focus

One tactic is to try to control or change people through fear and intimidation. This is an old way of leadership that can backfire.

While this may work in the short-term, people eventually respond by fighting back, leaving, or shutting down (i.e., the brain’s fight-flight-freeze response).

Instead, we need to shift the focus from them to us.

We can positively influence people by first creating change within ourselves.

#2 – presence

How we are showing up with the people we are leading, or relating with, matters.

Are we present and open? Or are we wanting something from them – wanting them to do something, to be different, to change?

The answer matters because it affects how we’re relating with people.

In a process called neuroception, the nervous system quickly and automatically receives signals from other people in order to decide whether or not we are safe with them.

We are always sending signals – unintentionally – to the people around us through facial expression, body language, eye contact, movement and tone of voice. These signals inform their nervous system.

For example, think of a time when you felt like someone wasn’t listening to what you were saying. How did you discern that? What signals did you receive beyond words?

If we’re distracted, anxious or wanting to control, we are likely unconsciously sending signals that we’re not present or safe.

And that is not a place where people are going to be open to change.

#3 – expectations & labels

Our expectations of others can change their performance.

Huh? Yup.

Our expectations and labels of people affect how we treat them, and that in turn affects their performance.

Back in the 1960’s, research psychologist Bob Rosenthal tested his hypothesis that expectations, or labeling, affect performance. (For more, listen to this Invisibilia podcast.)  He conducted two studies that proved he was right.

In one study, Rosenthal informed students who were testing lab rats that one group of rats was “bright” and the other group was “dull,” even though the rats had equal capabilities. Then he had the students test the rats’ ability to learn a maze. The rats who’d been artificially labeled “bright” completed the maze more quickly than those labelled “dull.”

In a similar study of IQ scores and teachers’ expectations, young children who had been artificially labeled for teachers as “ready to bloom” showed greater gains in IQ scores at the end of the school year than those who had not been described as promising.

How does Rosenthal explain this? The expectations had caused the research students and teachers to treat those labeled “smart” differently, and this treatment affected the animals’ and children’s performance.

#4 – start with assets

When you think of the person, people or team that you want to change, what is your first thought about them?

Does that thought recognize their aspirations, or does it focus on their challenges and what needs fixing?

Trabian Shorters, CEO of BMe Community, describes Asset Framing as a way to change our thinking and our culture.

When we begin with a person’s aspirations and motivations, we change the patterns in the brain which often create narratives about people according to a negative aspect or challenge in their lives (e.g., “at-risk youth”).

As Shorters puts it, “Their spirit isn’t moved by being marginalized [or poor]… There is something that they aspire to have, to create, to give to someone else.”

By framing people according to an asset or aspiration, we don’t ignore their challenges. But we also don’t start with that. We don’t define them by that.

This asset framing is an internal shift. And a powerful one.

The shifts that lead to change

Even the most savvy leader can’t make a person or team change who is not ready or willing to change.

But we can do the internal work to:
(1) show up with openness and presence;
(2) have positive expectations and labels about them; and
(3) see their aspirations first.

Like invisible Bluetooth waves, these inner shifts change not only our brains and behavior, but through the signals we send, can change people, relationships, and even over time – as Shorters aspires – culture.

That’s not woo-woo. It’s neuroscience, neuroplasticity, and it’s do-able.

So let’s get to work!

Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

1 Comment

  1. cheryl

    Excellent and important points Jennifer. Thank you.


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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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