Paul Haarman: How to Change People without Upsetting Them

It’s a common problem. Your boss wants something done, but the person you’d assign to do it doesn’t want to says Paul Haarman. Or your client insists that a certain result be achieved, but the person who can get it done won’t try. How do you get someone to change when they don’t want to?

When I was an executive recruiter, this was one of my favorite problems to attack with the multiple-choice approach: Who would be able and willing if we did X or Y or Z? You can usually find at least three good choices for any assignment before you even go into the interview process. People who have been passed over for promotions in favor of others–or people who were not promoted despite their accomplishments–are usually quite willing to step up to the next level of responsibility, especially if they are nicely “promoted” by being brought in as a team member of the person who will be taking over.

Motive is irrelevant. People are too quick to assume that just because someone isn’t motivated or does not want something that it’s impossible for them to change. It’s true that some people have very fixed personalities and won’t do whatever you ask them to do no matter what, even though they may really hate their jobs, but these are few and far between. Most people need money more than anything else, so if you offer them enough money–or even give them a chance at advancement–they’ll jump through flaming hoops if they have to.

The key to changing someone’s behavior is in understanding that most people do not like to be required or forced into doing things. They will resist such pressure and resent it when you apply it, but there is a way around this:

Suppose your client wants you to get an estimate from ABC Company ASAP. Your employee claims he can’t get his work done by the deadline and therefore won’t make time for the estimate. You order him to make time and he still resists. What do you do? Many managers–especially those who manage with fear rather than rewards–would yell at him if he didn’t jump on command, perhaps punishing him in some way (“This is your last warning!”) or denying him something that was important to him.

The solution is to change your own behavior first before asking the other person to do something different than they would prefer:

1) First ask yourself, “What does my boss think I’m doing?”

Even if it’s true, don’t say anything negative about your client. The one who asked you to get the estimate from ABC Company ASAP. In this case let’s say he assumes you’re wasting time on Facebook all day says Paul Haarman.

2) Before talking to your employee about the estimate from ABC Company, ask yourself, “What does my employee think I’m doing?”

In this case let’s say that most of her co-workers have been complaining about being assigned more work than they can handle and she is worried that you’ll assign too much work to her if she lets her guard down even for a second. She also heard from some of them that when they’ve told their manager–her–that they have too much work to do in a particular timeframe, their manager assigns additional tasks in response.

3) Now try a new approach: Praise.

“I know how busy things are for you right now. I appreciate the excellent work that you’ve been doing.”

4) Ask your employee what she thinks of working on an estimate for ABC Company–

Not “We need to get it done” or “When will you have time?” Have her make the time herself, because if the deadline is firm enough. She’ll do whatever it takes to meet it whether you push her or not says Paul Haarman.

5) Set up a meeting with your client and let him know that you are assigning this task to someone else because he needs more help than you can provide personally right now.

Assign it back to him with enthusiasm rather than warning, “Don’t mess this one up!” This way he won feel threatened by receiving help from you and will probably jump on the project–with enthusiasm.

6) If you’ve done all this and your employee still resists, figure out how to reward her in some way that makes doing the task in question desirable for her instead of making it distasteful through punishment or guilt trips.

The key is to change what they do by changing yourself first–and asking them. What they think rather than telling them what to do explains Paul Haarman. Once they’re commit to their part of the equation. They’ll usually find a way to get things because everyone wants to be like and respect by those around them.


The best way to get people to do what you want is by changing your own behavior first. This technique works both inside and outside of business situations. It takes time, but the results are worth the effort.


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