It has certainly been my experience that the great majority of people, with a reputation for being ‘difficult’, are capable of change. They may not get there easily, but change is possible.

However, there are some individuals who simply refuse to change or have significant barriers which limit their ability to change.

The good news about recognising those who are unwilling or incapable of change, is that it allows you to use your energy more constructively.

Here are some indicators, which will help you to form an opinion, as to whether a particular person lacks a capacity for change:

  1. Their history: A person who has a long history of problematic behaviour or difficult relationships may well be indicating one of three things: That they have had a bad run of relationships, have been stuck in some problem patterns of behaviour with the wrong assistance being offered, or perhaps lack the insight, motivation and ability to effect ongoing change.

    Another indicator in their history that will help us to assess whether change is achievable, is what has been done, over time, to influence change? Have the Have they also demonstrated an ability to develop the strengths that are required? For example, someone who is high-functioning on the Autism scale might find it very difficult to develop the people-skills required for a leadership role.

  2. Do not see the need to change their behaviour: While this is a very human condition – to often think that it is only other people who need to change – most people can eventually be won over by appealing to their goodwill or giving them time to settle. Many of us eventually see the need for change when we become uncomfortable with the status quo.

    But there are some who remain permanently with this perspective, who lack self-awareness and maintain beliefs that are not supportive of change with their behaviour, only the behaviour of others. Such beliefs are called ego-syntonic, where they see their entirely inappropriate behaviour as entirely appropriate. Someone who speaks very disrespectfully to a colleague might say, “I’m not being disrespectful. I’m the only one with guts enough to tell them how it really is!”

  3. A lack of empathy for others: Certainly, those who have suffered tend to have more empathy for others. Many people also develop empathy as they mature, appreciating there is more than one way to see a situation. Empathy also gives us motivation to adjust our behaviour due to the impact it is having on others. However, there are others with personality disorders, organic brain injuries, or their brain has developed in an atypical way, where empathy is very difficult, if not impossible, for them.
  4. Rigid, irrational beliefs: People who lack a capacity for change often have rigid, irrational beliefs. There is only one way to see a situation – their way. If others suggest another perspective, it is discounted, argued against, and resisted. Yes, there are times when we all think we are right and argue against another’s perspective. The difference is that those who are unlikely to change never move from this place. They maintain what I call a perverse perspective and view others’ way of seeing things as wrong, biased, or swayed by others, despite the evidence.
  5. Hidden agendas: Sometimes, their words may be saying that they are willing to do their part to help things to improve, but their actions, over time, are giving a different message altogether. Their hidden agendas may simply be unstated. Other times, they are completely oblivious to the psychological needs they are attempting to meet and the direction their choices are taking them. Keep in mind, though, that human beings are often wrong when guessing the intentions of others.

So, what can you do if you are working or living with someone who you believe is incapable of change? Keep in mind that you may well be wrong. I have often heard comments such as, “Mary will never change. This is how she has always been.”

But then there has been change with how Mary is being managed, she is placed in a different team, her doctor puts her on medication, or others change how they are relating to her, and suddenly, Mary is far less problematic.

But sometimes you are right – that a particular person lacks a capacity for change. Here, you can at least stop trying to influence change and instead use your energy in far more productive ways:

  1. Being less frustrated or offended by their behaviour: Here you are telling yourself that this is how they are, that they are probably relating to others in the same way, and, on this occasion, the problem is not with you. The more you can appreciate a range of factors underlying their behaviour, the easier it is to not be offended.
  2.  Coping with them, if that is possible: Is it possible to cope with or find some way to work around the behaviour that concerns you? Can you allow others to have the difficult conversations with them? Or find a way to work around them? Of course, coping with an under-performing team member, while not preferable, is far easier than coping with ongoing workplace bullying. There are some things you cannot easily ignore.
  3. Minimising their weaknesses and maximising their strengths: You can minimise a team member’s weaknesses by partnering them with another team member with complimentary strengths, if this is possible. Alternatively, you may simply be able to give them more of the work that plays to their strengths in the hope that when they are doing work they are best at, they will enjoy their work more and have less time to be problematic!
  4. Putting protective measures in place: This strategy is relevant only for those who are acting in hurtful, abusive ways and for those with harmful, hidden agendas. Examples of protective measures at work are keeping written records of your interactions with that person and their behaviour, not disclosing to that person information which makes you vulnerable, and having your computer password-protected. If the behaviour is particularly awful, there are, of course, grievance and performance management protocols, to help move them on.
  5. Moving them into a role that is a better fit: If someone really is incapable of the changes that are required, then it is management’s job to help this person find a role that is a better fit for their strengths. Sometimes this role is in another team. Other times, the role that is a better fit is outside of their current place of work.While it is not always easy to move people on, the cost of putting up with the status quo may well be greater. Here the records you have kept about the behaviours that have concerned you, and the actions you have taken to turn things around, will put you in a stronger position to influence Human Resources and senior management to take action.

Please remember that for the vast majority of people at work you experience as difficult, it is more that they are different or are unhappy about something at home or work. Your job is to find a way to work in well with them and to help them with those things they are unhappy about, if they are open to this.

But, as with everything we do, there always needs to be a backup plan for those times when our approach is not helpful or the problem behaviour continues. On most occasions, the continuation of their difficult behaviour is simply feedback, letting us know that we need to change our approach.