214 – Maybe You Have An Undiagnosed Resistance To Self-Improvement

214 - Maybe You Have An Undiagnosed Resistance To Self-Improvement
Sometimes patients don’t agree with a proper diagnosis.

NOTE: Today’s show was recorded live on a Google Hangout On Air that I kept unlisted because it just a test run for me to see how that platform might work during a live podcast. I’m considering doing some live podcasting. I’m not happy with the sound quality, but realized (too late) that there are settings I can use inside Google to improve that. I’m keeping the video unlisted, but you can watch it here if you want.

I’m not a physician, but I am a doctor. Of sorts. I diagnose people and treat people all the time. For a variety of maladies.

Thankfully, none of my patients die. A few are terminal, but it’s strictly because they choose to be. Like any doctor, I hate to lose a patient. Even if it is to their own foolishness and refusal to change.

Executive coaching and business consulting are kind of like two sides of the same coin. Both are rooted in problem solving. Both are focused on accurate diagnosis and proper treatment. And both require one ingredient or the prescription will never work.


Not my willingness. My willingness is always very high. Just read my Happiness Guarantee at the bottom of the Hire Me page. No, it’s the willingness of the patient, or better said, my client.

I wish I could tell you that every client I’ve ever had was gifted with an extraordinary amount of willingness, but they’re not. They may say they’re willing, but over time I can see their actions (or lack of) and see that they either don’t mean it, they’re deluded or they’re lying. It really doesn’t matter which it is because the net result is always the same. No improvement. No progress.

That’s when I typically diagnose them with a resistance to self-improvement. Some don’t agree with that assessment. Others, resist the diagnosis, proving they’re resistant to self-improvement and being diagnosed. Typically, I continue to work hard to help them past this ailment, but I’m not always successful. Some just can’t get past it. It’s become such a staunch way of life that some of them just don’t know how else to live. Eventually, I have to pull the metaphorical sheet up over their face and pronounce them dead to the prospect of ever conquering whatever constraints exist in their life. And we go our separate ways. It doesn’t happen often. Thankfully.

It’s a terrible, but necessary end because I’ve discovered through the years that the executive who raises through the ranks with undiagnosed resistance to self-improvement is most often incapable of change or improvement. Where there is a clear problem, they often refuse to see it. Like the Black Knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, they see a mortal wound as “just a flesh wound.”

Sometimes, it’s understandable.

I purposefully fictionalize case studies because all my work is confidential. I change names, industries and all sorts of things except the fundamentals of the story!

Jim (not his real name) is a 3rd generation owner of the business started by his grandfather. It’s a wholesale/distribution business with a solid reputation and a loyal client base. However, in recent years, there’s been some erosion of the customer base. And the customer complaints, which were once nil, have increased. Most of the complaints are centered around the apathy of the company to meet or exceed the expectations of the customer. Clients report a “sense of complacency.” They don’t feel as valued as they once did. It’s all very vexing to Jim who addresses every problem with brute force.

Jim is a dictator. He’s not your work-toward-consensus kind of a leader. He’s more of a prototypical my-way-or-the-highway kind of a guy.

Right away one issue becomes apparent. Success is going to be difficult to argue with. It always is. If a person has achieved success, even by being a tyrant, good luck affecting change or improvement. Even so, the process of trying pushes forward. I’m never one to give in too quickly.

Even a casual observer of the culture can quickly see this company never celebrates a victory. Ever. In fact, nobody ever does a good job. Jim is never satisfied with anything. Amazingly, he’s also never far from any decision, or would-be decision. I observe in my own personal notes to myself, “Second guesses everything and everybody.”

Out on the shop floor, during a management-by-wondering around (as Tom Peters called it), we encounter a young worker who didn’t appear to be out of his teens. The place was fairly frenetic at the time and his area wasn’t all that clean. I had noticed other areas that looked quite similar and they didn’t seem to provoke any wrath, but all of a sudden Jim was filled with rage. I don’t mean displeasure. I mean I-could-knock-you-out kind of rage. It was clear to me that the young man was doing all he could to keep up with the present distress of a hectic workload (turns out it was during their busiest time of the day). Jim began to upbraid the young man, telling him why his area was unacceptable. He ripped and snorted. This went on for quite awhile. I had retreated away from the immediate area, not standing my Jim’s side (as I had), for fear of causing the young man further embarrassment. Even from 10 paces behind, every word was clearly heard.

Finally, it was over. I held my peace. We kept walking around and finally migrated back to the offices. When we sat down Jim asked me what I thought and as is often my custom, I reversed field on him by asking him what he thought. Specifically, I wanted to know what he thought the problem was. “Why are customers unhappy and why are some leaving?”

Because I’ve got too many people who just don’t give a $#@!”

That prompted a conversation about employees who don’t understand what it is to own a business. You likely know that conversation. Lots of business leaders and most business owners have engaged in that kind of talk for as long as I can remember. It’s funny, but after all these years my response is still the same. “Well, they’re not owners,” I said. “They’re employees. But that doesn’t mean they don’t care. I mean, you can hardly expect a teenage worker who is making $10 an hour to understand what you know. How old is he? 18? 19?”

“I think he’s 19,” Jim said.

“Tell me about you at 19?” I asked.

Little did I know that I was opening a can of worms I’d rather have not opened. Too late. For the next 40 minutes I heard about his overbearing mother and never around dad. Now, executive coaching is always part therapy. It just is. Ask anybody who coaches business people and they’ll all tell you it is. Well, if it’s done right it is. And these cans of worms that we sometimes open inadvertently can serve to give us big insight. Sometimes they even provide an epiphany.

Over time the diagnosis was evident to me. Micro-managing every little thing, and going off on random things inconsistently (why dog pile the teenage worker about his area, but not the others whose areas appeared to be similar disarray?) had robbed people of initiative. It had grown worse by all accounts of insiders. Jim’s frustration had increased under the pressure of business growth. Eventually, the success was causing an implosion. Fact was, the very thing that had helped fuel success to a point…had now reached a place of diminishing returns. Now, it was a problem. Like laundry detergent, more isn’t always better. Sometimes you can get too much and destroy your entire laundry room.

I’d like to tell you things really turned around, but they didn’t. For a long time I tried. We were able to repair some things, improve others and stem the blood flow in yet others. But, overall, the basic foundations of culture never changed because Jim refused to accept responsibility for stymying the performance of his people. These people were afraid to move. They were trained to accept that everything they did would be wrong. So, it was just easier to do nothing, or do as little as was necessary — when it came to owning a problem, taking responsibility and trying to fix a problem. Jim was right, they weren’t behaving like owners because he had robbed them of any sense of ownership or pride in their work.

The story isn’t all that rare because this is not a rare disease. Delusion, self-deception, refusal to accept responsibility are all common in many organizations. It’s Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. People only know what they know. But what if what you know is wrong? What if you’ve just got a perspective that isn’t accurate?

I commonly challenge myself and clients to simply consider the possibility…

What if you’re wrong?”

I ask it of myself almost daily. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I am saying that it’s necessary if we’re going to improve or make progress. Especially if we’re leaders!

Back in the 1980’s I began to ask managers who reported to me, “Are you asking your people to improve their performance?” Every manager would answer in the affirmative. “Then why,” I reasoned, “don’t you give more time and attention to your own improvement?”

After all these years of leading, coaching and mentoring you’d think I’d have figured out why some people resist self-improvement, but I’m as stumped as ever these days. Oh, I know part of it is the blame game. Part of it is a person’s unwillingness to admit wrong. Part of it is an arrogant belief that we’re the most important person in the world. But the one that bugs me the most is the flat out refusal to even consider that YOU might be both the problem and the solution. Without fail, I have urged leaders to accept responsibility for the problems because that means they can also be the SOLUTION. I’ve considered that a powerful pitch, but I’ve learned there’s not a pitch strong enough to persuade the unwilling unbeliever. They seem to have a built-in resistance that just can’t be overcome.

Or can it?

Oh, I think it can. But sometimes it requires a drastic event to create enough self-examination. We all tend to change whenever something big enough happens to compel us to consider options. We eat fast food, bust our gut at every meal, never exercise and refuse to live differently until — a heart attack stops us in our tracks. After bypass heart surgery we may begin to think differently. Only then, might we consider the error of our ways.

It shouldn’t take a business or organizational heart attack to get us to look more closely at our habits and behaviors.

  • Realize there is no harm in considering the possibility that there might be a better way. Embrace the notion that just because things have been “this way” for a long time doesn’t mean it has to always be that way.
  • Learn and embrace empathy. Consider that sometimes people aren’t performing well because nobody has helped them. Maybe nobody taught them any differently.
  • Focus on what you can do to help your people improve. What can you teach them? What can you show them? Educate first.
  • “Reprimand first” won’t work if people don’t understand. You can’t correct a pet, a child or an employee if they don’t understand what they’ve done wrong — and how to do it right.
  • Be patient. You didn’t get it right the first time. Stop expecting everybody else to. Some may. Most won’t.
  • Don’t blame yourself, but take responsibility to fix the situation.
  • Realize the impact you have. For good or bad. Ignore people because you’re preoccupied and they’ll think you’re mad at them. Make some thoughtless off the cuff comment and you may send an employee on a 3-day spree to fix a problem that isn’t a problem. They just took a cue from your comment as a signal that they’d better do something differently.
  • Remember, it’s unfair to expect people to improve, fix what ails them or elevate their performance if you’re unwilling to do it yourself. You’re a leader. So lead.
  • Invest in yourself. If you want better results, then you’ve got to focus on the process.

As a leader, you’ve got to show others the way when it comes to the most important ingredient in high performance. Willingness.



GROW GREAT • Your Leadership Path Forward Begins With Your Own Growth
Exclusive Updates & Content

Grow Great a public sector leadership podcastAbout the hosts: Randy Cantrell brings over 4 decades of experience as a business leader and organization builder. Lisa Norris brings almost 3 decades of experience in HR and all things "people." Their shared passion for leadership and developing high-performing cultures provoked them to focus the Grow Great podcast on city government leadership.

The work is about achieving unprecedented success through accelerated learning in helping leaders and executives "figure it out." 

Scroll to Top