Can a person ever change?

“Can I person ever change?”

That question was posed several times, stated in a number of various ways, during meetings I held with one of my clients last week. The majority of these 30 managers are seasoned and they all care a lot about their employees. They also take their role very seriously.

They have created a culture where employees know they are valued. But that doesn’t eliminate those frustrating exchanges or difficult conversations that inevitably occur. And when the same issue crops up time and time again, it would naturally make you wonder: why? Why is it that the problem doesn’t get fixed after one, two, or three conversations about it?

And to me, that’s a large part of the answer to the question “can a person ever change?” If it were simple to change, these issues would go away quickly and easily.

Yet if we believe that we’ll never change, doesn’t that limit us? Wouldn’t it keep us from learning and developing? No. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.

I definitely believe we should always be reaching inward for personal development opportunities. And in learning new skills, experiencing new things, and being open to other perspectives, we can make significant changes. That’s different than actually changing our core personality.

As an example, with training, we might learn how to address difficult conversations more effectively. That’s a very important change to make. But the way we approach it, such as proactively or reluctantly, eloquently or uncomfortably, doesn’t drastically change. We always bring our inherent personality traits to the activity.

That’s why it’s so important to understand what those personality traits are. Not to change them. To make the necessary adjustments for the job and our personal interactions. It’s also really important for a manager to honor those traits of an employee. A manager should support processes and a structure that accommodates a particular work style, but understand that it’s impossible to ask someone to become something they are not. You shouldn’t compromise the work goals, but you have to be mindful of how to get there.

This has been a hard lesson for me to learn with Grace. In all the things I try to do to help her overcome her fear, we have made progress. But early on, I felt she could become a different dog. I’m finally understanding that I can teach her skills to deal with her fear, but I’m not going to eliminate it from her mind. At her core, she’s a fearful dog, and for good reason. As much as I’d love her to be a well-adjusted, happy-go-lucky dog that is openly friendly to all she meets, that is just not going to happen. I still love her deeply, maybe even more. Not because of how much trauma she was dealt as a puppy. But because of how much she tries to overcome it, despite all the mistakes I’ve made along the way in helping her get there.

I’m glad I got us involved in agility. I believe she enjoys the physical and mental work involved. I also think I made the right decision starting her in private lessons where she could progress at her own speed. But after months of success and integrating more people and other dogs into small size classes, I pushed forward and decided to bring her to a “practice” run designed for people who want to move on to competitive events. Looking back on that day, I think it was an enormously stressful event for her. Filled with lots of new people, new equipment, new demands, new everything. We had two runs; the first was so traumatic for her that she ended up running away from me, probably trying to say, “Let’s leave!!”

But she held it together, and after a delay caused by a rain shower, we had our second and final run, where she followed me faithfully through the entire thing, despite her desire to be anywhere but where she was. In this video (I just found this, I had forgotten that our good friend had taken this — thanks Brenda!), you can see that Grace’s body posture shows she is not enjoying this, and she tried to follow me instead of going through a tunnel that is normally a lot of fun for her. I give Grace so much credit for her courage in sticking with it. (I’m posting this video at the risk of showing how silly I look on the agility field! When she’s “on” Grace is a joy to watch doing agility — me not so much.)

I had written about this at the time and then I thought the day had accomplished what I had intended. But after reflecting about it, having more information from the seminars and readings I’ve been doing, I believe it wasn’t worth what we gained to put her through that fearful day. Yes, I would make a change in how I approach this again, but fundamentally, my personality hasn’t changed. For both of us, it was a learning experience.

Employees can also learn from the patience that Grace has had with me; managers will make mistakes just like employees will. It isn’t easy finding the right balance for when to push more and when to let the person find their own way of learning. I had Grace’s best interests at heart, but I probably pushed her too hard on that day. When we listen to each other and learn what we did right and where we went amiss, that’s when we create a high performing — and enjoyable — workplace.

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8 comments

  1. LeeAnn says:

    Hey Robin – first of all, you and Grace look wonderful in the video. The affection between the two of you is so obvious. On the overall issue, I struggle with this question all of the time as there are aspects of myself that I am working to change or improve (such as negativity and cynicism). I am hopeful that if I can’t change them, at least I can soften them – or change how I use the traits, perhaps? A deep discussion. : ) Hope you are still enjoying your yoga – so excited to hear that you are trying it. Take care, LeeAnn

    • LeeAnn, you always offer such thought-provoking material. In all the things I’ve learned about you through your blog, I can’t imagine you being negative. Not sure about the cynical part, I wonder if you are more skeptical about things rather than cynical? Having a healthy dose of that can be a very wise thing. You won’t be taken advantage of. I think self-improvement is a way to balance our strengths; whenever we have a pronounced strength, it opens the door to a corresponding weakness. A deep discussion, indeed! I do love the yoya, thanks for asking about it! It’s only been a few weeks but I can already see how it can be addicting — and helpful!

  2. You and Grace are a lovely team:) I think you’re probably the best Mum she could have had. You’re helping her to be the best she can be and I think she’s teaching you a few tricks too, or making you think a bit anyway!

    I’d love to change but I’m scared that if I stop being so damn nice at work people won’t like me any more, lol!

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