I recently blogged about the Recode/Decode interview between Kara Fisher and Frances Frei about changing the culture at Uber (it’s a great podcast episode, by the way). One thing that impressed me was Frei’s reluctance to embrace a zero-tolerance policy towards toxic workplace behavior. Frei is a strong believer in people’s ability to become aware of their negative behavior and change, given the right feedback and coaching. Zero-tolerance leaves no room for correction, in her view.

Which begs the question: Can people change? Can abrasive, even abusive behavior change? If so…

What does it take to change?

Obviously, there needs to be a genuine interest in and motivation for change. There has to be a process in place to recognize what needs to change, to understand how to change, and to practice the new behaviors to replace the negative ones. But, in my experience, coaching and developing people for close to 30 years, the real leverage for change comes down to this question: Are people able to catch themselves in the act of making a mistake?

Because the truth is that people will continue to make mistakes. Frei used the analogy of leaders “hitting things with their tail.” We don’t always see the impact we make. It’s long been documented that we are driven often by unconscious emotions, that we identity with values or beliefs that our lived behavior flatly contradicts. No matter how much we improve and develop, we will err. We will fall down. We will “hit things with our tails” because we are rushing, focused on something else, or our self-interest gets in the way. Sometimes, we minimize just how big our tail is.

To know whether people can and will change, we should be looking at and evaluating:

What do people do when they make mistakes?

First and foremost, do they see they’ve made a mistake? Or do they hide it, not see it, rationalize their behavior, make excuses, or blame others?

Seeing that they’ve made a mistake means that they notice the other person’s feedback, which is a good sign.  The next step is this: can they stop, course correct, apologize or make amends?

Finally, can they learn from the experience and move on?

If we are going to make mistakes, as growing beings, we need to be prepared for those inevitable mistakes. At minimum, we need to be able to catch ourselves in the act, and learn, grow, and change from our mistakes. To do so, requires practicing four behaviors:

  • Notice feedback. Catching yourself in the act means that you become other-aware: you learn how to read the feedback, to catch the signals and signs that you have made an error, to notice the static in the atmosphere, and realize that something has gone awry. You also need to become more self-aware, to hear yourself and see yourself saying or doing something clunky, offensive, or boorish.
  • Know how to apologize. When you make a mistake, can you say so? Can you apologize, or are you afraid to say “sorry” because you fear it makes you look weak? Do you think people will question your authority if you do? Learn how to say sorry. Focus on the impact of your actions and on the pain or damage it caused the other.
  • Be okay with being challenged. What happens when you are challenged, when your knowledge or authority is questioned? Can you be open to feedback, including critical feedback? Do you ever use or your rank, role, expertise, or knowledge to defend against others’ criticism or retaliate against them for challenging your authority? Become comfortable with being challenged or criticized; develop the inner support to take tough feedback without wilting or lashing back.
  • Don’t defend your good intentions (much). When we’ve done something that upsets another, a knee-jerk reaction is to feel yourself a victim of the other person’s reaction. We defend our good intention, and sometimes even blame the other for their “thin skin,” or for taking it the wrong way. Don’t try to stop the other person from having their reaction. Defending our intentions is a way of saying “we’re a good person.” It’s appropriate for you to think that, but if you have to make the other person confirm it, you’re going too far. You have to be okay with the fact that they won’t see you as the good person you think yourself to be.