Never Expect Change, You Won’t Be Disappointed

It’s an ancient theme of comedians, as old as comedy itself. It goes something like:

  • A woman marries a man expecting he will change, but he doesn’t.
  • A man marries a woman expecting that she won’t change, and she does.

It’s told many different ways, but the essence is that many people have a very different expectations of change.

In the workplace, I have often encountered managers with unrealistic expectations of change. So often that I have developed a really simple rule of thumb with respect to change:

Never expect anyone to change, you will never be disappointed and you will be occasionally pleasantly surprised.

Rather hash, yes. But it has never failed me.

I have seen a hundred managers who overlook, or proactively ignore, repugnant behavior in employees. It seems they hope that some miracle, or a passing visit from Dr. Phil, will get the employee to see the error of their ways and make a wholesale change in their life. It doesn’t happen.

Now I’m not talking about people who won’t make a new pot of coffee when they drain the last cup, or who break wind in the elevator. I’m talking about more serious things. Like people who treat others like they are put on this earth for their convenience. Or can’t construct a sentence let alone a convincing argument. Or are so criminally disorganized that they can’t find anything on their haystack of a desk.

Expecting people to change their essence is just asking for a letdown.

No, these things are at the core of who these people are, and they simply can’t change them. Expecting people to change their essence is just asking for a letdown.

What’s worse is when people hire people with clear, fatal flaws and delude themselves into thinking they will fix them. “Not to worry, I’m a superhero manager, I can fix that.” Betcha can’t.

I ought to know. I did it myself… more than once.

In one case, I took a superstar individual contributor, a true unmitigated genius — one of the smartest two or three people I’ve ever met (and I’ve met some of the smartest people on the planet) — and promoted him to be a manager for me. He is really a special intellect, you see, so I was more than intrigued to see if I could get him to grow out of his quite abusive behavior of others, and his incredibly condescending tone, and his unrealistic expectation of others, and his subsurface misogeny, and … you get the idea.

As it turns out I couldn’t change him. He was a disaster. I narrowly avoided a lawsuit from an employee. With the advice and assistance of my HR person, I wrote a special note for his personnel file that read, in short: “This person should never be allowed to supervise others again”. [Note: He was recently mentioned in a national publication as a future CEO of a Fortune 500 company — but I digress…]

Fire them and move on.

The key point here is that I know of what I speak. There is a great deal you cannot change in people. Never expect them to change, and you won’t be disappointed. If you try once and there is no change, don’t keep beating your head against a wall. Fire them and move on.

In closing, I’m reminded of the great W. C. Fields when confronted by a woman who proclaimed “Sir, you are drunk!”. His response: “yes, madam, but you are ugly and in morning I shall be sober.” Some things just can’t be changed.