Want to Be a Change Agent? Start with Self-Awareness

Wikipedia’s overview of Organizational Development contains the following explanation of the role of a change agent:

A change agent in the sense used here is not a technical expert skilled in such functional areas as accounting, production, or finance. The change agent is a behavioral scientist who knows how to get people in an organization involved in solving their own problems. A change agent’s main strength is a comprehensive knowledge of human behavior, supported by a number of intervention techniques (to be discussed later). The change agent can be either external or internal to the organization. An internal change agent is usually a staff person who has expertise in the behavioral sciences and in the intervention technology of OD.

I disagree that “a change agent’s main strength is comprehensive knowledge of human behavior” and a bag of tricks called intervention techniques. The change agent’s main strengths must be personal integrity and the ability to engage with and fully understand the people and the culture they’re trying to help.

While expertise is certainly important, the truth is that many people are suspicious of experts, especially when they perceive those experts as “talking down to them.” This creates defensive behavior that eliminates any possibility of real dialogue. Without real dialogue, the change agent will always miss what the change in question really means to the people involved. Without that understanding, the change process will become corrupted. Unless the change agent inspires trust, his or her knowledge of human behavior and intervention techniques will prove perfectly useless. Expertise can never be a substitute for personal integrity.

Personal integrity involves more than “doing what you say you’re going to do.” It also involves more than a commitment to help people solve their own problems, or what we call “helping people work through their choices.” That commitment is important, but a change agent will not be much help to people without mastery of the most important competency of all: self-awareness.

A change agent often ignores the fact that when they are trying to change an organization, he or she is acting from the self. Without self-awareness, a change agent can easily contaminate a change process with hidden agendas and unsatisfied psychological needs. Without engaging in the often difficult personal exploration that leads to self-awareness, a change agent will never be capable of the reflective insight that is key to developing a healthier organization. Self-awareness also has the curious effect of increasing the ability to empathize with others and the problems they face in trying to become more capable human beings. When a change agent combines a lack of empathy with a laser-like focus on behavior, the only things that change are the things on the surface. You may create compliant human beings who learn how to tell you want you want to hear, but you have changed nothing except given people a different game to play. They’ll learn the new rules and speak the new language, but the underlying problems will remain undisturbed.

Authenticity is critical to successful change. Unless people are open and honest with each other, hidden problems will always disrupt a change effort. The change agent’s role, therefore, must include the ability to model authenticity. The change agent needs to put all the cards on the table and encourage others to do the same.

However, it is impossible to engage in that kind of authenticity without self-awareness. If you have no idea who you are, how can anyone else know who you are? And if they don’t know who you are, how on earth can they trust you? Without trust, you will never get the unfiltered information you will need to help effect positive and lasting change. Focusing entirely on structures, systems, processes and behavior is a completely inadequate approach to change. All transformational change begins with self-awareness and ends in mutual trust.

All your expertise won’t save you if they don’t see you as someone they can trust.

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