Monday, July 21, 2014

Help Real Change Agents Help Themselves


I've observed many leaders say they're looking for a change agent. I believe anyone who wants to hire someone to lead the change they want to see in their organization doesn’t really know what they want. The conviction and tenacity needed to lead change requires three influencing factors:
  1. A real vision, based on true passion, of what the organization can accomplish.
  2. Belief in the mission and the value-propositions it represents for all stakeholders.
  3. A sufficient amount of dissatisfaction in the status quo.

I recently worked with a woman who is a real change agent. She had recently let her frustration get the best of her at work. She had been given a disciplinary warning because her actions were perceived as unacceptable. I was asked to coach her because her behaviors in the incident distracted everyone from her message. No one was quite sure how what to do next to resolve the situation. In other words, the company recognized the value she created for them and wanted her to continue to contribute but they didn't really know what to do with her.

I reviewed the facts that had been gathered before I met with her. Then, I listened to her side of the story. When I first told her I believed she was a change agent, she denied it. She shook her head and said, “I just want to do my job.” I believe this denial was based on the repercussions of the incident and she was losing sight of the big picture.

I asked her, “So, what were you trying to accomplish that day?”

“When I see someone doing something I know is not right, I just want to help them understand what they can do differently. How can we ever get better if no one is willing to listen?” I could tell the incident was caused by the frustration that built up over time due to what she perceived as collective indifference toward continuous improvement. I believe her behavior in the incident was caused by her inability to resolve the conflict created by that indifference.

As she spoke I observed her frustration create energy that needed to expend itself through the change in her voice, the tears in her eyes, and her body language.

“OK, so you say you just want to do your job. When I see and hear the most passion from you, it’s related to making things better. So, what do you think your job is?”

I could tell she was caught between two conflicting thought processes: one was telling her to play it safe like she’d been trying to do so the aftermath of the incident would go away; the other was making the connection between what I was saying and the reason why we were talking in the first place. “Let me ask the question in a different way. You are highly skilled at what you do and the company needs those skills. But, do you really believe your job is only performing tasks requiring those skills? Is that really how you believe you will create real and lasting value for this company?”

She couldn't help the smile that appeared on her face despite the tears, “No.”

“Are you a change agent?”

“Yes. I am.”

“Outstanding! Now, let’s focus on how you can do your job in this organization. The truth is they know they need you but they can’t recognize the value-propositions you present them. You need a plan for how you're going to change that.”

By the way, this woman wasn't even in a leadership position but I knew she could drive positive change if she had the right kind of support.


Real change agents are everywhere and they can't be satisfied unless they are helping drive continuous improvement. They are inspired to drive change when they recognize gaps between the value-propositions the organization states it wants to fulfill and current performance. They just can't help themselves. They are compelled. The incremental value their ideas can create for the organization are significant and logical and they believe the only way to communicate the opportunity is to be direct.  The problem is, you're so distracted by how their frustration affects the manner in which they communicate that you can't see the opportunity, you only feel the discomfort their words and actions create for you and the people around you. Your desire to eliminate the discomfort drives you to do something. 

Because it seems easier to silence the wheel that makes the most noise than to change out or re-align the defective parts that make it squeak you miss the real opportunities and sacrifice the improvements that come from incremental change for the illusion of peace you associate with preserving the status quo. Maintaining the status quo in a world that is constantly changing is a recipe for disaster. So, what can you do?

If you want real and lasting success, the key is recognizing real change agents and how to help them manage their frustration as they try to pull people out of their comfort zones.


  • They are typically very skilled.
  • They tend to learn new jobs very quickly.
  • They ask a lot of questions.
  • They initially gain credibility quickly then lose it incrementally over time as they challenge the status quo with more and more colleagues.
  • They are eventually perceived as pushy and abrasive. Others tend to complain about them and will say things like this about them, “He should just stay in his lane and worry about his own job, not about how I’m doing mine,” or “She doesn't have the experience I have. Besides, this is the way I've been doing it for years.”
  • They are often the frustrated ones. They perceive no one else seems to care about the opportunities for improvement. They become impatient with the lack of positive change which drives them to lash out.
  • They don't give up. They keep pushing their ideas up the ladder with the hope that someone with authority will lead the changes necessary to improve performance and the culture. They continue to try to make their point because they believe in their message even when they're getting in trouble for the manner in which they've delivered it.


1. Typically, you will become aware of a change agent who is not effectively working with others in one of two ways: They complain to you about how nobody wants to change or somebody else complains about them. Ask yourself- If I separate their message from the frustrated emotions they express while they're delivering it, do I understand it agree? (I’m asking you to ignore their inappropriate behavior for a moment. We will come back to that)

a. If your answer is yes, go to Step 2.

b. If your answer is no, ask more questions for clarification and repeat Step 1 until one of the following occurs:
  • You understand and agree. Go to Step 2.
  • You can’t understand and agree no matter how hard you try. You may have a change agent whose values do not align with the organization. Go to Step 2.b.

2. Ask yourself- Has this person violated any organizational policies on acceptable behaviors in the workplace during a specific incident because of their frustration?

          a. If you don’t know, you need to investigate further until you come up with a definitive yes or no answer. Gather more facts from people involved in the incident (who, what, when, where, how).
          b. If your answer is yes, you must address the unacceptable behaviors. Follow your organizations disciplinary process then go to Step 3. This is important if you want to help this change agent learn how to be effective without compromising their position. You must give them the opportunity to recognize their greatest opportunity for creating value is to change the way they react to what they perceive to be wrong.

          c. If your answer is no, go to Step 3.

3. It’s important to not steal the change agent’s initiative. If you want to create a continuous improvement culture you must help them become influential with their colleagues. At this point, whether they've displayed unacceptable behaviors or not, their actions have distracted everyone from the value-proposition and their co-workers will be reluctant to work with them if they don't resolve the conflict. If you try to influence that you will only alienate them further. It’s time to help the change agent define what they really want.

          a. Ask them- Which damaged relationship is most important resolve for you to get back on track and work toward the change you want to realize?

          b. Ask them- What behavior have you displayed in past interactions with them that you’d like to change?

          c. Ask them- What exactly does that person do when you bring up improvement opportunities and which creates an emotional reaction in you?

          d. Ask them- How does their reaction make you feel?

          e. Ask them- What reaction would you like to see in the future?

          f. Ask them- How do you want to work with them from now on?

4. Prepare them for a conversation focused on resolving the conflict. Help the change agent craft a message with their target audience by having them fill in the following statements:

______________(Answer to 3.a.), I recognize my behavior was unacceptable when I ______________(Answer to 3.b.). I’d like to apologize and think it’s important we talk about what happened. Are you willing to talk about it? (We will assume the answer from the other party is yes).

When you ___________________(Answer to 3.c.) it makes me feel _________________(Answer to 3.d.). In the future, I’d appreciate it if you could ______________(Answer to 3.e.) so we can _________________.

5. Prepare them on how to manage the conversation by developing strategies for the following scenarios:
          a. Ask them- How will you proceed if the other party indicates they want to work with you in the manner you’ve asked them to?

          b. Ask them- How will you end the conversation without making things worse if they indicate they do not want to work with you in the manner you’ve asked them to?

6. Give them the assignment- Set a date and time when you will meet with the change agent again. Communicate your expectation that they will have the conversation they prepared for in Steps 3 & 4.

7. Reconvene on the agreed upon date and time from Step 5.
          a. Ask them- What was your plan?
          b. Ask them- Did you get the results you needed?
  • If yes, congratulate them on their success! Celebrate! Then, ask them what their next step is. If they need to have a similar conversation with other employees have them repeat Steps 3 through 6 focusing on what worked well and what they can do better as they repeat the process.
  • If no, ask them what they believe the next step is and what they need to do differently to get the results they need. Remember, not to take responsibility for resolving the situation for them.  

Helping real change agents in your organization can set the conditions for huge leaps toward realizing the changes you'd like to see through continuous improvement. Your role as the leader is to define the objectives and provide the resources required to achieve them. The steps listed above are intended to provide you with  a strategy you can use to provide any real change agent with the resources they need to facilitate change while establishing (or rebuilding) working relationships with the people they need to be successful at helping your organization realize your vision.


Tom Eakin
Success Engineer, BoomLife

Want to know if you're on your path to Values-Driven Success?
Try the GPS Theory App at

email us at