People Don’t Change: How to Fix the Team, Not the Person

Coastal Elite from Halifax, Canada – Lucy Van Pelt’s psychiatry booth, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78594878

For many sites and museums Summer 2021 is a re-emergence. Staff dismissed and subsequently rehired or staff who’ve worked from home are back. There is a joy in seeing the band back together again, but there is also the potential for new and not so new workplace conflicts to arise. Although we missed the congeniality of the happy workplace, no one missed dealing with the frustrations of irritating colleagues and staff.

Once about a billion years ago, I worked for a really great leader. When I legitimately complained about a co-worker’s behavior, a macabre mixture of bullying and misogyny, her response was, “Joan, people don’t change.” She meant that she couldn’t radically change this person’s character. In its simplicity, her response wasn’t that different from what my then-therapist said: that I needed to let person X be person X. On the one hand, it was hugely cynical. There are a gazillion pages like this one every week filled with hope. They counsel change, urge new behavior and the rewards that come with it, and yet here were two people I admired and respected telling me not to expect change, suggesting it was not the norm.

So what’s a leader to do? People come to work every day burdened with baggage: lousy parents, bad relationships, illness, challenging children, financial struggles. We expect and need them to re-focus, to essentially drop the baggage, and put work first–the exhibition they need to do, the policy that needs revision, a grant application submitted or a donor cultivated. And often that involves change at least during the work week. Maybe not a huge amount, but enough to move the needle. So how do leaders grease the wheels of behavioral change, while being realistic enough to know that at the end of the day person X will still likely be person X? Do we ask them to change at work for work? Do we point out that in this case the whole is greater than the parts?

One of the first things to keep in my mind is you aren’t a fixer. You’re not Lucy Van Pelt offering “Psychiatric Help, 5 Cents Please.” As a leader, you need your museum, heritage organization, program or team to function well, but thankfully that’s the extent of your responsibility. Nor is it entirely HRs–presuming you have an HR department. That said, the place where individual behaviors and the workplace intersect is the murky ground of bullying, meanness, and sexual harassment. There are laws about that. Should you discover that what appeared to be a workplace squabble is something more, that is when you bring in your HR leader, read your HR policy, and never/ever take a hands off approach. It takes enormous courage to report any of those incidents and each and every one needs to be investigated carefully and treated respectfully.

But what if you’re dealing with garden variety behaviors? They aren’t illegal, but they are annoying, and they almost always have an impact on your team. What about chronic lateness? Epic messiness? Or staff who take a ridiculous amount of time to focus on a task, distracting others in the process, and then blithely announcing they will stay late to finish, thereby eliminating collaboration?

Talk with them. If you have an HR team, it might be a good idea to brief them first, weaving their ideas into your first conversation with your staff person. Is there an outside reason that’s prompted or accelerated this behavior? Does your organization have resources your staff person could tap to help outside of work? Do they need personal time off? Is that an option?

Do a personal check-in. Where are your own biases in this particular contretemps? Is this a person you’ve struggled with as well as your staff members? Why? Know where you are before you talk.

Be clear and direct. It’s not about them–and you are not blaming them for their divorce, their parents’ illness, childcare issues–it’s about work. You may feel like saying, “What is wrong with you?” but you don’t need me to tell you that’s not appropriate. For example, explain how chatting aimlessly for 50 minutes prior or post meeting affects the team, how subordinate staff don’t always feel they can leave a conversation, and how work is delayed and left unfinished.

Give clear, measurable goals. Being direct with staff doesn’t mean you are short tempered, but if a person is unaware that their epically untidy office means it’s off limits for conversation, then they probably need a simple directive that by the end of the day, the week, whatever, progress is made toward tidying up. Ditto for other problems.

Plan to meet again. These conversations aren’t fun, but they lack utility when they are one-offs. Underscore that this matters to you. Why? Because your staff member and the team and the work you all do matters. Before you close the initial conversation, set a date to meet again.

Write Down What Transpired. Keep detailed notes that can be shared, if need be, with HR. God forbid, things don’t get better, you will need your notes to establish how certain patterns of behavior are detrimental. For yourself, process what happened, and how you can improve.

Make sure you understand what your options are. Does your HR department have a personal improvement plan fr staff who are struggling? If not, can you and they craft one? Are there ways of separating the staff member from other staff without making it feel like a time out? If need be, do you know how to go about firing someone?

Don’t let the situation distract you. Another wise person told me 90-percent of my time as a leader would be devoted to 10-percent of the team. Remember to give yourself a break as well. Get up, leave your office. Take a walk. Do something completely different. Make sure you have an outlet–outside of work–to download what’s going on.

Despite this post being all about work, I’ve been on vacation for 10 days. I hope as this hot and fiery summer continues you find some time to re-create too. I also hope you read Vu’s piece on non-profit leaders and the need to re-charge. BTW, if he’s not on your weekly reading list, he should be.

Be well.

Joan Baldwin



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