01/31/2013 06:48 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2013

Four Ingredients Needed for People to Change

Do people really change?

Whether you're on a board giving a CEO their 2012 performance summary, or a manager working with someone who needs coaching, you wonder the same thing: "Will they get it? Can they change?" You're not alone -- as an executive coach I'm often asked by wary colleagues whether the zebra can change his stripes.

After working with many clients, I can say definitively the short answer is no, there's no point in trying to change someone's fundamental character.

Yet when four key ingredients are in place, we do indeed alter our thinking and behavior in modest ways that, over time, can make profoundly positive differences.

For example, consider the manager who's always on the offensive. Years ago I was invited to work with a client whose growth in the organization had hit a wall. Right off the bat I noticed his colleagues had little or no trust in him. Interviewing them (my first step) they all said he was cruel to people and routinely threw coworkers under the bus, particularly in meetings. He was notorious for dominating airtime and going on the attack, leaving coworkers tired and defensive, wondering who was next on his hit list.

When I presented him with the findings, he was floored -- he had no idea he was so universally distrusted. He told me, "That's not who I want to be." Smart and ambitious -- and a kind person in his private life -- we was clearly determined to do something about it.

Talking through actual situations, he and I discovered his core notion: in his view, he started each day having "zero value," needing to prove himself at work, fighting his way around every treacherous corner.

Operating from that principle, it's no wonder he was playing offense. While therapy might have tried to figure out the "whys" of his past, and where this all came from, my approach was to find a much more pragmatic and effective mindset, starting with awareness of the faulty thinking. When provided evidence his thoughts were completely out of sync with the reality of his workplace, he began to change for the better, and with commitment over time, it stuck.

Of course people change all the time. How? I've learned from assignments that worked well, and others that haven't been successful, that, at minimum, four factors need to be in place: awareness. capability, fire, and timing.

1. Awareness

In the example, I pointed out the powerful awareness brought to my client by the "testimony" of his coworkers. There's nothing like taking a look at someone from the perspective of those around them to shed light on their impact, for better and worse. It's why I begin most engagements with an anonymized, thematic coworker assessment of my client's workplace strengths and areas for development to illuminate their blind spots. If they are able to take it in (that is, if they're not overly defensive or inclined to rationalize it), the first ingredient for change is in place.

2. Capability

When not sharp or open-minded enough to grasp the relationship of one's thinking to behavior to results, then the person is not capable of change. The opposite is also true at times -- that the person is so smart they think their way out of changing, which can be equally problematic. In the example above, my client was willing and smart enough to talk through his thinking, practice other operating notions, noticed the results, and learn from what he discovered in the real world, making him capable to change.

3. Fire

Whether fueled by ambition, dissatisfaction, or (unfortunately less often) a drive to learn, fire in the belly is necessary to change the way we operate. In the above example, my client had been passed up for promotion several times, and his cohort was looking at him in the rear view mirror -- his ambition served as the right fuel. Had he been complacent, there would have been a failure to launch. Ignition typically comes from a dissatisfaction with the present, desire for more, painful realization, event, or conversation.

4. Timing

You can bring someone awareness, assess them capable of change, and even see they are fired up about it, and still fall flat if it's the wrong time for them. Whether they can't hear it right now, are in crisis mode at work, or under some significant personal stress; regardless, it's just not the right moment. For example, you can hear a candid or insightful piece of feedback once, twice or 20 times, and not "get it." Yet when the timing is right for you, that "one more time," all of a sudden it makes total sense. Bang -- the timing ingredient is in place.

Experience shows these are not the only ingredients necessary for sustainable change, but they are the most important ones. Without them, we have a great knack for sticking to doing what we do and getting the outcomes we usually get.

In order for that performance review or feedback to do its best, and not be a useless bummer, a key needs to fit into our locked habits and patterns. It's made not of metal, but of awareness, capability, fire, and timing. When these tumblers click, we change in ways no one, including the skeptics, thought we could. This is as true of yourself as it is for your people. Check your instincts, and you'll see what I'm saying is right on.