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Can you change people's minds? (spoiler alert: No)

Faizan Patankar on 4 November 2019

There you go, I have penned (or typed?) this finally. You cannot change people's minds.

This comes up in discussions with those trying to make a change in long-established organisations. Can you change people's minds?

And the answer to that is No.

Changing people's minds is no easy task. We are dealing with humans; and humans have developed a mind, a mind so complex, crafted by nature through centuries of refinement.

Your brain isn't your years old.

It is way older than that. (About 40,000 years old).

The human brain has been developing for centuries and what you have so far is the most perfect version of it.

But you didn't really play a part in developing your brain.

Secondly, you didn't teach your brain anything. Society and education taught you everything you know so far. So all you have done is learned something. Something that the human brain had been refined to learn anyway through the generations of humans before you.

So where does the question of changing people's minds come in?

We cannot, I repeat, canNOT, change people's minds

Have you tried writing with your non-dominant hand? Try writing with it; you could learn to do it after trying daily for a year (I know because I learned it).

The point is, the way we write alphabets with our dominant hand is different from the way we write with our non-dominant hand.

We don't just learn to do a different thing, we do a thing we know differently.

Learn. Unlearn. Relearn.

Now, let's look at the problem with trying to "change people's minds" in established companies.

What folks expect is that employees will change their minds. To do things differently, but do them the same way.

And that is not possible.

You can't change people's minds by expecting them to do the same thing differently. You have to do a different thing.

It's the combination of doing different things, and doing them differently, that brings about change.

Can we do different things, and do them differently?

You guessed the answer - No.

For most people, doing different things (from what they've learned) and doing them differently (from what they've been requested to) is too much of an ask.

To make that happen, they have to unlearn and then learn the new way.

And most people will never accept that.

It is the reason why long-established companies make decisions by committees. Because it's what they know.

They can't sit in committees and decide to do things differently. They first have to accept that the method of decisions by committee isn't / hasn't / will never work going forward.

OK, so how do we bring about change in an organisation?

Sometimes, to change people, you have to change the people.

That's the only sure way to bring about a change. Change the people.

Hire different folks, and hire them differently. Throw out your playbook, and keep experimenting until you are happy with all your recruits.

Have a look around you; are you genuinely satisfied everyone recruited around you is the best that you can have?

If the answer is NO, then the truth is your hiring process has to be different.

It's not just different folks that you need, you need to bring them into your organisation differently.

It's such a simple lesson. You cannot change people's minds. You can only change the people.

Now, flipping the side for this next bit.

What if you want to make a change as an employee?

This is going to be hard, but here you go.

If you are an employee, and if you aren't a leader within the company, I am afraid you won't make a change.

Yep, you just won't.

Not unless your CEO has told you that you have the freedom to do different things, and do them differently. And meant it!

For most employees, they really won't be able to change people's minds within an organisation. You can only do things differently, which, believe it or not, after you leave/move to a different role, will go back to the way they were before you. Or your changes will become the next outdated process.

You really won't be changing people's minds

What you can do is change your environment.

Working with constant naysayers? Working with people who don't get it? Falana falana...

Go change it.

Find a workplace that gets it. Change the environment you surround yourself with.

And believe me, there are lots of organisations out there who get it.

Find them.

But how do I find them?

Gosh, really? Have you not by now worked out the whole thesis of this post? Change your mind by doing different things, and doing them differently!

Try looking for jobs in a different manner. And apply differently.

Do something you think is batsh*t crazy.

And when you think you've done it, do something crazier.

Disclaimer: this may not help you find a job. But it will help you find your mission. What you care for.

'Ah no no Faizan, I want to stand and make a change in this place.'

Sigh 😔

You stubborn, stubborn friend of mine.

You are the odd one out. The anomaly. The rebel.

I get you. I understand the incredible belief you have in yourself to change the people where you are at.

You are the one who likes to own it.

Whatever it may be, I have no idea.

And I want to support you.

I applaud you.

But I warn you. It is mentally exhausting. It is tiring. And it will wear you down.

Stubbornness in a good way = Persistence

But damn, does it eat away at your mental health. So remember to take care of yourself first.

I don't care about organisations. Those investor-led or shareholder beholden entities who are there to make money. They will come and go.

You, on the other hand, can't be replaced.

So take care of yourself. Trying to change people is not a one-person job.

I had a colleague, who once told me that and it took me a further 3 years to realise it.

I thought I was persisting.

But in fact, I was stubborn.

It took me a while to realise that you can't change people's minds. Minds have formed over centuries and it's hard for most people to unlearn and re-learn.

An organisation can't change minds

And individuals shouldn't attempt it alone.

Isn't this a very negative way, suggesting getting rid of people?

Well, it isn't. And the argument is way more complicated than this, I get it.

And organisations know that, too

So, why are organisations and consultants throughout the world running short "change management' and "digital transformation" programmes?

The truth is, this is a complicated argument. And all I am arguing is that you cannot change people's minds. Certainly not in the way that organisations are trying to do it.

And yet, change is forced on people.

What's worse? Guiding people into roles that work for them, or forcing them to do something they are not going to enjoy doing?

So no, I am not suggesting sacking people all around.

But look at the employees you have, and give the right ones the right opportunity. And the freedom to do different things, and do them differently.

That isn't too much to ask, is it?