How Many To Change A Light Bulb?

We all know the answer to the spurious question: how many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? We all know the answer is none: they have to want to change!

Psychologists are not the only ones for whom this is true – it is so for all of us.

As a manger or leader, friend or whatever can you cannot change anyone. You can influence them to change but they must do the changing.

For most of us the process is difficult, even something said in innocence can be taken as a devastating insult with the person exploding in a paroxysm of anger and resentment. Fat chance now for anything to change!


One of the reasons for this is an individual sense of self, their self concept and it plays a key part in the acceptance of information.

In the processes of maturing and trying out different experiences, an individual develops a set of ideas about him/herself. S/he will have an idea about the sort of person they are in each of their social roles; as a parent; as a husband; as a manager; as a sportsman; etc. They will also have an ideal view of themselves, of the sort of person they feel they ought or should be, containing their conscience and values, their dreams and fantasies about themselves and their place and value.

This set of ideas is known as the self concept, and it acts to integrate an individual and hold them together so that actions are broadly consistent, one with another, and their values.

One definition of maturity is the development of a realistic self concept, one in which the individual’s view of themselves is largely in agreement with other’s view. By contrast, many emotional/psychological problems have their root in an unrealistic or inappropriate self concept.

As individuals we are likely to be quite open in discussing some aspects of our self concept ( for example, when someone says, ‘I’ve thought of myself as a sporty /approachable/private person”).

Other aspects, however will be completely private; indeed the most private of all their possessions. These aspects, which are likely to be of central importance, are never discussed, even with those they love the most, in case, others ridicule or judge harshly their most private of thoughts. They guard their concept of themselves, because the self concept is, in effect, them.



The individual develops a range of devices which serves to protect their self image. These are known as defence mechanisms. Typical defences include denial and rejection of the information, blaming of others or “circumstances beyond their control”, lying, and especially in Britain, agreeing quickly and changing the subject. There is no clear pattern as to why one person uses particular defence mechanisms. It seems that each of us discovers and then develops those defences which work for us personally in different situations.


In some cultures, feedback is relatively easily accepted. In Australia, it is not unusual for strangers or slight acquaintances to make personal comments; In America, positive feedback (praise) is both given and received relatively easily. In a culture of privacy such as Britain, feedback is given rarely and even praise is received defensively.

(“Oh it was nothing, really; anyone could have done it”).


Feedback creates awareness for the need for change, implying, especially to the British, the individual is somehow inadequate as he failed to spot the need himself. This leads to guilt, and then to defence.



You can, with sufficient power, enforce change. If you do, you will achieve a psychological contract of compliance, with all its attendant disadvantages of minimum, limited co-operation and the need for persistent monitoring.

If you want whole hearted change from an individual, then you must get them to want to change. This means that you are dealing with their self-concept, and inevitably, their defence mechanisms.

It is practically impossible to know how central a particular piece of behaviour may be to the individual’s self-concept. Apparently, trivial behaviours can represent key themes. A scruffy appearance may simply reflect that they do not know that you minded about it; or it may imply (for example) a deep-seated concern to be seen as creative and independent. When you do not know, it is prudent to assume that it may be important, and thus highly defended.

In effecting whole hearted change in the behaviour of another person, you must be prepared to deal with the individual’s defence mechanisms. You have 2 choices:

Confrontation – overcoming their defences


Feedback – avoiding arousing their defences

Research studies on the effects of giving feedback have demonstrated that performance after the interaction is likely to get worse on those aspects of the work on which the job holder has been most severely criticised.

Similar studies have shown that feedback in the form of praise is usually regarded as mere politeness.

Does this mean that giving feedback is a waste of time? Or is there something wrong with the way praise and criticism is actually given? Both practical research and experience support the latter. Many managers in large organisations are crying out for feedback; “tell me what I can do to improve”; “tell me how I’m getting on”; skilful feedback is known to improve performance.

Giving Feedback

Good feedback has the following characteristics:

  1. Descriptive, not evaluative; in describing your own reactions,you are presenting information; in evaluating, your are making judgements and risk a defensive response.
  2. Specific, not general; to be told “you’re stupid”, is to create rejection; to be asked, “what factors did you consider in coming to this decision?” is to invite participation.
  3. Controllable, not beyond control; to be told “you’re too short” is to invite frustration. What can you do? Grow?
  4. Solicited, not imposed; if I ask for feedback, then I am more likely to listen; to often, unsolicited feedback relieves the feelings of the giver, not the receiver.
  5. Helpful, not destructive; helpful feedback starts with what they were trying to achieve, and how they saw the situation;
  6. Future oriented, I can learn from the past but can only affect the future – so lets concentrate on that!

So, feedback is a way of helping someone to learn. It is designed to achieve a specific change in some person’s behaviour, in a way that will help them. Feedback is centred on the needs of the receiver, since otherwise it serves merely to relieve the feelings of the giver, and at the receiver’s expense!

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