stop improving behavior

How Do You Accidentally Stop Someone From Improving Their Behavior?

This situation happens a lot of times. We hold someone who upset or disappointed us in the past in the same bad light – for years! In doing so, we inadvertently help “freeze” the very behavior that upset us. In other words, our stagnant view of them can stop that person from improving their behavior.

Meet A Construction Company That Was Experiencing a Setback

A multimillion company in the construction industry I was working with had three divisions. And divided they were.

  1. One division was providing steady income with services. That division produced moderate but reliable profit margins. They viewed themselves as the “golden goose” of the company.
  2. Another division focused on high-end construction projcts. They had much higher profit margins but the volume of their jobs was much lower.
  3. The third division was in trouble. They were bidding on many public jobs but were getting only 5% of the jobs on which they bid. The costs associated with bidding were quite high. Some people in the other two divisions pointed the finger at this division. “These guys are sinking the company”, they said.

That was a difficult situation. The company had been growing by leaps and bounds for more than two decades. Then the economy softened. Several large projects stalled costing the company millions of dollars in profits. Now the company was facing a turnaround.
I realized that everyone had to work together. To return to profitability, we had to overcome the divisiveness in the company. The company had been on its way to becoming employee-owned when the pull-back happened.

Not Just A Semantic Shift

I suggested we rename the divisions and call them “business units.” That might sound like a meaningless semantic exercise but it was not. We talked about the fact that we are all sitting in the same boat. If the boat has a hole – somewhere, anywhere – we all sink. It doesn’t matter where the hole is. We need to work together to plug it instead of pointing the finger at each other.

Employees With a “Long Memory”

That made sense – to most of the employees. Many, if not most of the employees had been with the company for a long time. I learned: When people have been with each other for such a long time some of them have a “long memory.” It sounds like this:

“Gary did this unforgivable, horrible thing ten years ago. I don’t trust the guy at all!”

Ralph (Gary’s colleague)**

In the meantime, Gary had made some attempts to change his behavior. But it seemed like these changes were moderate and didn’t last.

Two Powerful Lunch Conversations

I took Ralph and Gary to lunch – separately. I discovered that Ralph didn’t think he couldn’t forgive the old matter. Gary thought changing his behavior was pointless – Ralph’s opinion of him was never going to change. No matter what.

Talking with Ralph, I asked him a pivotal question.

“How can Gary change when you keep holding him in the same light?”

Dr. Stephie

Ralph was stunned. He never had considered the possibility that his opinion of Gary could stop Gary from improving the very behavior Ralph was upset about.

I helped Ralph realize that we are all “moving dots on our own journey.” He acknowledged that he himself had progressed and learned from his mistakes over the years. He came to see that he kept holding Gary in the same light, no matter what Gary did since the incident that happened ten years ago.

Behavior Frozen in Time – And A Happy Ending

Ralph and Gary are not alone. This situation happens a lot of times. We hold someone who upset or disappointed us in the past in the same bad light – for years! In Ralph’s view, Gary’s behavior and trustworthiness were frozen in time.

The story has a happy ending. Ralph recognized he had to open himself up to noticing and acknowledging Gary’s improved behavior. That gave Gary the motivation and opportunity to change in a positive direction. The old hatchet was buried at last.

I’m Curious

Where has a person held you in the same old light? Where have you hung onto a view of someone because something went awry years ago?

** Names have been changed. The story is real.


  1. Carolyn Koenig on at

    You made all the difference in that relationship, Stephie! If it hadn’t been for you, what would have changed? I hope we all have the foresight to try to mend bridges, if we are ever in this type of situation. Life is too short not to get along!!

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