Can’t, Won’t, Don’t: Helping people change

This post explores different reasons why people resist change; and how one can them.

My kids CAN’T yet swim the backstroke. They sometimes WON’T share their toys. And they DON’T chew their food well enough.

What should my response be? A different approach in each case? Or an omnibus method that I can use, whatever the occasion?

In an earlier article on effectiveness of workplace training, I argued that after the customary workshop (where some knowledge is provided), follow-up support is crucial. It helps people as they struggle to implement learnings to their jobs. Now, I expand on that theme and describe the kind of follow-up support needed.

The skill constraint: when someone CAN’T

Consider the following situations:
– New guy cannot operate a machine
– Fresh face needs to learn how to use Pivot Tables in spreadsheet software
– Students needs to learn how to interpret financial statements
– A manager needs to learn how to perform a quality audit
– You’re good at something, but now you need to teach others how to do it

In these examples, there’s a clear skill gap. So we start by providing basic knowledge through a workshop. After that, the “long tail” of practice starts. Since opportunities to apply the new knowledge may be sporadic, the learner will use it, then lose it and then again regain it. The ‘regaining’ is where the learner needs our support.

Sometimes, timely information is the best support: instruction manuals and telephonic helpdesks do that. At other times, scheduled practice sessions and feedback do the job (fire drills in the office are an example).

This situation represents the simplest training task, where the constraint is only of skill.

The will constraint: when they WON’T

The second kind of constraint has to do with hesitation or opposition to something new. The learner may be capable of doing something, but doesn’t want to do it. Some examples:
– Praising a good deed (as opposed to pointing out only mistakes, and ignoring good work)
– Delegating authority (as opposed to closely controlling everything)
– Offering feedback (without ‘wronging’ the receiver)
– Consultative selling (as opposed to ‘pushing’ products)
– Saying ‘No’ assertively (as opposed to submitting meekly)

In the above examples, there is a pre-existing mindset or fear which prevents people from adopting new behaviors. So what kind of post-workshop support would be best?

Oodles of encouragement to adopt new behaviors is the need. Think role models. Think seeing someone else benefiting from use of new skills.

An appropriate forum for this is a practice-group. Such a group of 4 to 8 people meets regularly (say weekly) for an hour or two. Sessions may be moderated or not. The focus is on bringing forth stories of struggles and successes; on peer learning. The idea is that the reluctance gets whittled away bit by bit, if people see their peers struggling, then adopting and then benefiting from new behaviors.

The habit constraint: When they DON’T

This category of constraint has to do with pre-existing habits, ingrained through long use. A person may be able to act differently when consciously attempting it (say, within the confines of a training workshop), so there’s no skill constraint. He may even be eager to do this (no problem of lack of will). The problem is: he simply forgets to do it. That’s how habits work… we’re on auto-pilot, instinctively doing something before we even think of it consciously. And the fact that we have the knowhow and willingness to act differently doesn’t matter…. the deed is done before conscious thought intervenes.
The following examples fall in this category:
– Gathering data before arriving at conclusions
– Thinking of consequences before taking action
– Staying calm under duress or provocation
– Catching one’s own biases
–  Being mindful of others while speaking
–  Paying attention to details
– Paying attention to the big picture

Such situations can be helped to some extent through a ‘daily check-in’ system, which is just something to keep us mindful that we’re working on a particular ‘change project’. Think of a daily alarm on your mobile-phone. Or a 2-minute phone call to a supportive buddy or coach at a fixed time everyday.

A practice-group (which can be renamed the mindfulness group here) can also help people. The work in this group will be about setting up personal cues for action (“when I feel impatient next time, I’ll take a mental breather”). And about deciding alternative strategies to handle situations (“…and I will ask myself, do I have enough data to reach this conclusion?”)

Tougher cases

Of course, people and their situations don’t fit into neat buckets. A manager may believe people respond only to fear, habitually throw his weight around the office and not even know other ways of dealing with people… that’s will, skill and habit all rolled into one. Try having him change his beliefs and behavior, and its a lot of patient work. But then, there have been successes. I know of a senior (read: know-it-all) sales professional who fits the above description. I clearly recall his 3-month journey…
FROM wearing a permanent sneer during the workshop
… TO trying out more respectful methods at work tentatively
… TO finally becoming a poster-boy for “managing people through feedback and coaching” within 3 months.


In the world of training and development which I inhabit, people’s challenges look deceptively similar, but scratch the surface and they come in many flavours. Each of these flavours deserves a slightly different training response. This difference is at two levels:
– at the macro level, the structure of the training intervention changes, depending on whether knowledge or skill or belief is the crucial aspect. I’ve discussed this at length in this article
– at the micro level, the kind of post-workshop support needed differs, as the current article argues.

A one-size-fits-all approach to training is sub-optimal. It’s akin to me giving an earnest lecture to my kids everytime they struggled at swimming, refused to share toys or gobbled up their meal. I should know… I’ve tried that approach before I became wiser. Now, I know that the swimming problem needs more practice. The sharing problem needs me to share MY things more often, thus role modeling desired behavior. And the chewing problem… constant reminders.

Photo credit:  Sarah Cervantes via Unsplash