Why Telling People How to Behave Never Works

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could tell people what to do, and then have them actually do it?

How fabulous would it be to simply share your wisdom and watch other people change before your eyes.

“Kids, gather round. Nutrition and organizational skills should be at the top of our family priority list. So here’s a Franklin planner and a copy of the FDA food pyramid. Start using these tools on a daily basis, and I  feel fully confident that within the month, we’ll be happy, healthier people. In fact, you’ll probably want to throw me a party for providing this family with such valuable insights.”

Imagine how productive your workplace would be if you could flip the switch on counterproductive behaviors with a simple command.

“OK guys, I know we’ve always been very competitive here, and we’re rewarded for beating our coworkers. But starting tomorrow I’d like us to be creative and collaborative. So when you come in, please check your old behaviors at the door and start acting the way I want you to.”

If simply telling someone to change were effective, there wouldn’t be 50 zillion diet books. Information alone is not enough. People have to want to change.

And therein lies the challenge.

If you think about the way we typically “train” people, it’s often a one-way flow of information: Here’s what I want you to do; here’s why you should do it; now do it. Whether it’s an employee or your spouse, our first instinct is to give the command, and when that doesn’t work, we try punishment and/or rewards.

However, neuroscience is now proving what many of us in the training business (and anyone who has parented a teenager) know: Incentives and threats don’t work, at least not over the long haul. If you want people to change, they have to think it’s their idea.

Brain imaging technology reveals that the human mind is a complex maze of neural connections. We have routine ways of doing things that create very real neural pathways in our brains.

Doing certain kinds of work in certain ways leads you to have a certain brain structure. For example, if you’re a salesperson, and you typically start pitching your product without asking the customer any questions, your brain creates a pathway that leads directly from prospect to pitch.

If you go to a sales seminar and someone (let’s just say a personal development author) suggests that you need to listen and ask more questions, it will be challenging for you to adopt these new behaviors because they conflict with the physical structure of your brain.

The most effective way to get people to change is to create “aha moments” that fire up different parts of their brains. Helping them reach their own conclusions about things starts a new mental pathway.

Instead of telling a blabbermouth salesman he needs to listen, ask him, “What effect do you think it has on the customer when they can’t get a word in edgewise?” He’ll likely “self-discover” that a behavior change (more questions and listening) will help him close more deals.

If this sounds exhausting, it is. I run seminars, I do corporate coaching and I parent two teenagers. There’s been many a day when I’ve wished I could just shout, “Do it!”

But what do YOU think is the best way to get people to change: Barking commands or asking questions that prompt them to reach their own conclusions?

If there’s a light bulb over your head right now, it’s working.

Lisa Earle McLeod is an author, columnist, keynote speaker and business consultant. The founder and principal of McLeod & More, Inc, she specializes in sales and leadership training. Her newest book, The Triangle of Truth, has been cited as the blueprint for “how smart people can get better at everything.”  Visit for a short video intro.