Change Is Hard—Here’s How to Influence People to Get on the Same Page

UPDATED: January 9, 2023
PUBLISHED: January 9, 2023
colleagues working through making a change at work

Do you ever feel like you can’t get everyone on the same page regardless of how hard you try when making a change?

  • “Twice I’ve told my new co-worker that we have to talk to each customer individually about our new services. I just learned that she still hasn’t made even one call!”
  • “I explained to my team that we are putting all of our products online, and this will change priorities and how we work—it will change everything! Yet the next day they went right back to doing what they have always done, as if my conversation with them had never happened!”
  • “My friend is habitually late. We missed an important meeting yet again. I told him he had to start being on time. He completely agreed and apologized. Today he is late again.”

Sound familiar?

Your co-workers, your boss, your team, your customers, your sibling, your friend and your community group all have their own priorities and values. You want to make a change, but despite some of your best efforts, there is no progress.

Why? And what can you do about it? The simple answer: It depends. But first, you must determine what is causing the roadblock.

Skills or motivation?

As my fellow PeopleResults partner Kirsten Jordan always says: “Skills + Motivation = Behavior Change.”

Knowing if the resistance is driven by a lack of skill or a lack of motivation will determine how you can best influence behavior change—including how work is done, improved performance or even the quality of a relationship.

As an example: You want the sales team to sell more of the new services. But selling one well-known product is easier because they know it inside and out, and they don’t understand how the new services work. They aren’t prepared to make the shift.

Likewise, after a tough grade in calculus, you can give your son a motivational speech on the importance of achievement peppered with stories from your high school years. But he is staying up late reworking problems and the math just isn’t making sense to him. For him, lack of motivation isn’t the problem.

Let’s look at skills and motivation a bit more.

Is a lack of skills preventing change?

Skills are the ability to do something well.

The most fundamental questions in any behavior change are these: “Do they know how to do what needs to be done? Do they have the knowledge and experiences that give them needed skills?”

An additional, but just as important, pair of questions is: “What will it take to get them the skills they need? How big is the gap?” The answer might be training or online tutorials, or a mentor or coach working alongside them for a few weeks. 

In some cases, however, the gap may be too big.

An accountant may have a natural transition into financial planning, as it relies on some of their core skills. Yet that same accountant will likely have no idea where to begin on designing a new brand campaign. The skills are completely different.

One of my clients recently changed her group from behind-the-scenes experts and process managers to become client-facing. She now needs her team to build relationships, manage expectations and prioritize based on client goals rather than just manage their own work. The change is a big one. She finally concluded that the gap was too big for some to make. The development of skills would either take too long or, in some cases, may not be possible.

The student that is working hard but still struggling in calculus needs more than a motivational talk from dad. He needs tutoring or time with the teacher to gain the tools and support necessary to develop his skills, because motivation isn’t enough for him to be successful in the class.

Or is it lack of motivation?

Motivation is very personal, but our tendency is to motivate others based on our values and what we care about.

Those who joyfully compete and win think that they have learned the key to motivation. It’s winning! In fact, they have learned something about themselves and how they are motivated. Except others may find any competition highly demotivating and completely disengage.

To motivate another person, we must appeal to their individual values and what they care about. In other words, you can’t motivate someone without first understanding them either individually or through common themes of the group.

Dan Ariely, the James B. Duke professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, “provides evidence that we are also driven by the meaningfulness of our work, by others’ acknowledgement—and by the amount of effort we’ve put in: the harder the task is, the prouder we are.” Yet even these factors look different when you apply them to an individual or smaller group.

To motivate others, first consider the values and the issues that matter most to them. No matter how great your influence or persuasion skills, it won’t matter unless you appeal to what others view as important.

Motivation is ultimately a personal decision. You can only influence. And influencing the habitually late friend to change isn’t a problem for you to solve.

Deciding your approach to make a change

Do your homework if you want to create a change in behavior. Step outside of your own shoes and put on someone else’s. This perspective is step one in determining the actions that can make a difference.

Here are some basic questions to consider before you begin a change that depends upon others changing their behavior:

  1. Do they have the skills they need to change?
  2. How can they develop the skills? Can they be developed in the timeframe needed?
  3. Are they motivated to change?
  4. What matters most to them?
  5. How does this change connect to their values, issues and priorities?
  6. What role can I play in encouraging this change in behavior? How can others help?
  7. Are they willing to change?

And, most importantly: Is a lack of skill or lack of motivation causing the gap?

Knowing this answer is the “unlock” for influencing behavior change at work and in your family, community and relationships.

This article was published in March 2016 and has been updated. Photo by Branislav Nenin/Shutterstock

Patti Johnson is a career and workplace expert and the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and human resources consulting firm she founded in 2004. Previously, she was a senior executive at Accenture and has been recently featured as an expert in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times,NBC, Money Magazine and Working Mother. Patti is also an instructor for SMU Executive Education and a keynote speaker on “Leading Change.” Her first book, Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work & in Life, hit shelves in May 2014. Visit her website at