Can People Really Change?

We receive a variety of responses to articles on the Leadership Platform columns. Many of these responses are inspiring in their own right. We appreciate the thoughts of readers. This forms a valuable part of our 20 year on-going research efforts in leadership and human behaviour principles. A few weeks ago one of our readers responded to one of our articles and commented on the need to catch our youth early in order to train them in positive behavioural dynamics. Then he asked the question whether it is really possible for older people to change their behaviour?

We will address that question today.

Can people change?

Many years of intimate experience in people leadership, parenthood and counselling provide overwhelming evidence that people do change, often dramatically. A friend of mine survived a serious threat of a heart attack. He abruptly changed his life style in order to stay alive and improve his quality of life. People give up smoking, in some cases they were smoking 60 or more cigarettes a day. It is not an easy thing to do. I willingly wash dishes at night at home. This was not an option where I grew up!

In the work place we see people change all the time. Not so long ago the idea of having a black boss was completely foreign. Now it is an everyday occurrence. It is true to claim that many people resist change as if their lives depended on it and of course the older one becomes the more challenging it can be. But we live in a changing environment, more so than ever before in recorded history, on a technological, political and social level. This is South Africa and we change all the time!

We will discuss several guiding principles that determine the ability to change attitude and negative behavioural habits.

Attitude towards change

The first principle is the significant role that attitude plays in changing behaviour. Over the years we have held leadership conversations with hundreds of top performers. We cannot think of one that wasn’t driven by a positive fighting attitude! Last week’s article was based on a leadership conversation with Themba Nyathi, HR Executive of MTN. He explained how he grew up with a conviction that ‘I can change…’. This is still the basic drive that enables him to overcome barriers to excellence.

Not only does a positive attitude determine the degree to which we believe we can change our own behaviour, but it is also a crucial element in believing that OTHERS can and do change. In other words, I cannot really motivate behavioural change in others if I do not have a deep-rooted conviction that I have changed and that I am still in the process of changing my behaviour towards excellence. People easily sense our own lack of conviction and sincerity in preaching change in their lives. To quote a Leadership Platform slogan: ’It is humanly impossible to perform above our believed values’. Our personal belief system determines our behaviour levels.

Psychology of changing behaviour

In some of the abovementioned examples people changed when confronted with death. Perhaps that is not the most meritorious reason for behavioural change. For people to willingly change behavioural patterns, they need to drill down to their most basic belief system. This means that they need to confront their emotional as well as mental barriers to personal excellence. We are speaking of a person’s inner values, both negative as well as positive. The process of change is not necessarily an easy journey and often may require the intervention of the ‘third factor’.

The third factor

The first factor in this illustration is the person concerned. The second factor is the attitudinal resistance of that person. Bear in mind that often the person concerned may not really believe they can or even want to change behaviour. The third factor is somebody or something that intervenes to inspire behavioural change. This may be a leader, friend, or belief system. It may be a book, article, or an urgent situation. A good leader can play a crucial role in bringing about a climate for behavioural change. The role of a facilitator is often required to trigger attitudinal change. The major principle to recognise in behavioural change is that it is process driven, whether it happens quickly or over an extended period of time.

Process driven

Behavioural change only occurs when the person concerned goes through a process of drilling down to deep-rooted drivers of human behaviour. This means undergoing a process of facing their negative as well as positive perceptions about themselves, that over time they have come to own (possess). In essence this process will assist the person to arrive at a deeper understanding of their own self-image – who he or she thinks and believes he is. It is from this basis of understanding that a person will often decide emotionally and mentally to adopt positive behavioural patterns and let go of the old. At Leadership Platform we apply a process called the Destiny Chain that is remarkably effective in bringing about attitudinal and situational change. It can be done!

Nature’s lesson

So often nature is the greatest teacher. We know that all things consist of matter that consists of vibrant molecules and atoms. Even our own physical bodies are undergoing immense changes all the time and literally shedding millions of cells every day as it seeks to renew and heal itself. Movement is change. Plants ‘die’ and then come alive again in spring.

Factors of greatest impact

Amongst many contributing factors leading to behavioural change three attributes stand out. The first is possession of a sincere value and belief system. This makes change so much easier. The other factors are the attributes of love and sharing. Good mothers are probably the best possible examples of how love and sharing brings about attitudinal change in children (and even in husbands sometimes!) A caring and sharing attitude by leaders can have a great impact in the lives of others. Just think of it; nothing impacts more positively on our minds and hearts than somebody sharing with us that which is most important to them. This includes sharing of knowledge, compassion, respect, trust and high expectations of our performance I worked for years with an employer and subsequent partner, Francois van Niekerk, who has a gift of openly sharing his business concerns and joys with the rest of the staff. He has an impressive record of success that is in no small way the result of his sharing attitude towards others.

Can adults change? For certain they can if the abovementioned factors are in place. It is a minority that refuse to change no matter what support they receive.

This article appeared in the:

The Workplace

Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation.




Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022

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Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


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