When constructive criticism falls on deaf ears

tug of war rope
tug of war rope
Photo: Yagi Studio—Getty Images

Dear Annie: What can you do with a valued employee who ignores everything you tell him? We’re coming up on year-end evaluation season again, and I’m at wit’s end with one team leader who reports to me. He’s brilliant and produces terrific work, but he’s dismissive of others’ ideas and rarely even gives them a fair hearing. Part of his job is to develop talent, but at this point no one wants to work with him, and a couple of promising young employees have told me that, if they can’t get assigned to a different team, they’ll quit.

I’ve tried many times to talk to him about this, but the trouble is, whenever he trashes someone else’s idea in favor of his own approach, he usually turns out to be right. So it’s tough to make the case that his behavior needs to change, because he can always point to great results. Any suggestions for how to get through to him? — Tired of Talking

Dear Tired: No question about it, getting people to change their behavior is hard. Studies have shown that, for instance, only about 2% of employee feedback makes any noticeable difference. Sometimes, making sure people have the resources they need to do their jobs can help, but that’s evidently not the problem here. Instead, you’re going to have to dig into how this team leader sees his future, and why he’s leading a team in the first place.

“When you’ve delivered your message over and over, and someone isn’t hearing what you’re saying no matter how you put it, it’s time to ask questions that get to the heart of how this person is thinking,” says Marcia Reynolds, president of leadership development firm Covisioning and author of The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs. “Telling him how you see the situation isn’t working. So find out how he sees it. Find out, first, what his goals are.”

Does this team leader see himself eventually moving into senior management? If so, you could point out that helping people under him develop and grow is an important part of that role—and that he’ll move up only when he shows he can do it. “The key is to make the conversation about his long-term goals,” says Reynolds. “What will he have to do to get where he wants to go? Make it about him, not you.”

Part of the difficulty you’re having now, by the way, could be a consequence of how your company rewards performance. We’ve all seen people get promoted into management based on their technical proficiency—the top salesperson who gets promoted to sales manager, the software whiz who’s put in charge of other developers, and so on—despite lacking most, or any, of the skills it takes to be a true leader.

If that’s how this person got his current job, Reynolds says it’s no wonder your feedback is going in one ear and out the other. “He’s probably getting mixed messages,” she points out. “If he’s being praised and rewarded for his great results, that tells him his awful people skills don’t really matter. At the same time, you’re telling him otherwise. Unfortunately, saying to someone, ‘We love your results, but you need to change your behavior’ is not ever going to work.”

Suppose his long-term goal is simply to keep doing what he’s doing. Find out why. Reynolds says she coached one client whose boss complained she was an arrogant know-it-all team leader like yours. “When I asked her why she was so condescending toward everyone else on the team, she said that no one else cared about excellence as much as she did,” Reynolds says. “However, she also said that a big reason why she valued her role was that it was very important to her to be seen as a good team leader.”

Reynolds convinced her she wasn’t seen that way, because “good leaders listen. Once she started working on listening to other people, she realized they weren’t so dumb after all. But the change in her behavior came about only because it served her own purposes, not someone else’s.”

Ask enough of the right questions, and you could get a surprise. You might discover, for instance, that this person would rather not be leading a team at all. “Maybe he sees working with a team as just slowing him down. Maybe he’s impatient with others’ suggestions because it annoys him to have to consider them,” says Reynolds. “If so, it could make a lot more sense to let him work alone, and let other people implement his great ideas.”

But you’ll never know unless you ask. “People don’t change unless they really want to, and achieving their own goals—not yours—is always the best reason,” Reynolds says. So finding out what those goals are is “common sense,” she adds. “But it isn’t common practice.” Good luck.

Talkback: Have you ever persuaded a colleague to change his or behavior? What worked (or didn’t)? Leave a comment below.

Have a career question for Anne Fisher? Email askannie@fortune.com.

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