Is it Worth Trying to Change People?

"I've got a member of my staff that I just can't seem to manage. They have a really challenging personality and no matter how many ways I try to address it, I can't seem to get my arms around it or provide any course correction. What am I doing wrong here?"

July 7th, 2021   |    By: Wil Schroter

Founders won't change people's personalities, we can only manage them. And that's where we fail over and over.

How often do we get frustrated by someone in our organization that we just wish we could change? They lack motivation, discipline, or they just don't play well with others. In our Founder minds, we just need this one inspirational heart-to-heart talk, or some Karate Kid montage, where they come out the other end a changed and improved human.

We have a hard time believing we can't "manage" our way into the outcome we're looking for, but what we're actually missing is that there are certain aspects of humans that go beyond what we can manage in the first place. And our lack of recognition of this boundary creates a colossal waste of precious time and energy, neither of which we have in surplus!


Certain Things Won't Change

Let me put it this way — if someone is a jerk, they were probably a jerk before we hired them, they are going to be a jerk no matter how we manage them, and they will be a jerk at their next company too. Of course, we're going to try anyway. We're going to use the whole utility belt of useless tools — from a bunch of heart-to-hearts to organizational rules, to mixing up reporting structures so they can't offend anyone.

What we can't do is take the jerk out of the jerk. We can't change them, all we can do is manage around them, which is like trying to dam a river with a twig.

The thing is, we kinda know this. If we're being honest with ourselves (which we rarely are) we know that this one intervention is at best a band-aid and at worst just a total waste of time. And yet we go through this silly routine over and over. Why? Because we're afraid to deal with the alternative.

Replace What We Can't Manage

What we should be doing is separating behavior (which we have little to no control over) from skills. Skills are things that are unknown or unrefined, but can certainly be taught. Perhaps a manager is falling behind with their team. Well, we can teach managers to be better managers.

But if our team can't stand their manager, and that issue is rooted into an actual personality problem, we have to be wise enough to zoom out and say "OK, this is something we can address, but we can't necessarily change for good." It's like when we were kids and our parents told us to stop hitting our sibling in the back seat. We stopped — for a minute. But ten minutes later we were at it again. Our parents didn't change anything, they just slowed it down for a minute. Essentially, they were bad C-level execs up there in the front seat!

Bad behaviors need to be replaced, not managed. That's not to say we can't take a few course-corrective swings along the way. It's to say the moment we see a pattern that indicates behavior over skills, we kinda, sorta, but totally know how this is going to end.

We Are Managers, Not Parents

Where we tend to get tripped up is assuming our role as managers is some sort of pseudo-parental role. We want to believe that we can fill in the gaps for what parents and therapists must have missed. But we're neither, and our staff are neither children nor patients. They are grown-ass adults that are responsible for their own behavior and as such, the consequences of shitty behavior.

We can be better coaches and mentors — but those aren't parents either. We can offer better paths forward, walkthrough hard decisions, or provide useful advice. But like anyone else, we cannot "change" whether or not someone accepts or leverages that direction.

As Founders, it's actually really hard to come to grips with the fact that there is so much here that we can't control. It's a bit antithetical to how we try to manage and control so many other aspects of our startups. But it's also a bit freeing. Coming to terms with the fact that what's broken is going to be broken regardless of how we try to fix it gives us clarity and resolve to move on and find those that don't need to be fixed. So let's put our energy and wisdom into those wonderful people!

In Case You Missed It

Optimize For Productivity. Working through peak productivity is easy. It’s the valleys that we’re concerned about. The key is to plan for and optimize the valleys so we can recharge effectively.

Don’t Work Long Hours, Work Efficient Hours. As Founders, we should stop being "long hours" champions and instead start being proud of how much we can do in as few hours as possible.

Is Doing Non-Startup Stuff Good For My Startup? (podcast). Join Wil and Ryan as they discuss how doing stuff that's NOT Startup-related is important not only for your own sanity but for the growth of your company.

About the Author

Wil Schroter

Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @ Startups.com, a startup platform that includes BizplanClarity, Fundable, Launchrock, and Zirtual. He started his first company at age 19 which grew to over $700 million in billings within 5 years (despite his involvement). After that he launched 8 more companies, the last 3 venture backed, to refine his learning of what not to do. He's a seasoned expert at starting companies and a total amateur at everything else.

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