How to Identify Your Team's Best Change Agents

Dec 1, 2014
7 Min Read

When organizations believe they must change to survive, they often bring in an outsider to drive that transformation. But that can be as disruptive as it is stressful, leading to turnover, reduced productivity and sinking morale. The better solution may be in harnessing the power of existing teams to come up with ideas that trigger change and drive innovation.

“Change agent” is no longer just a term for an outside consultant or someone in the C-suite who is charged with transforming an organization.

More organizations now realize they must have leaders and employees who are change agents, capable of looking at what they do in a different way and bringing about change in order to be competitive.

Allen Barclay, a management professor for Colorado State University, explains in his research that it makes sense that employers should turn to employees to be change agents, since in times of change “it is often up to the employees to make the change work.” In addition, tapping employees as change agents can be critical to truly transforming an organization or process as employees who provide input about making changes are more likely to support it and ensure it’s successful, he says.

“Within change, we are not normally changing the organization; we are changing the people in the organization. This reinforces the need to shift focus from the organization and management and instead target employees,” he says. “Employees should be charged with the ability to foster positive change by management, but more so, by themselves.”

To do that, Barclay suggests employees who are considering whether they would be good change agents should ask themselves:

  • Is there something I can do to make the organization a better place?
  • Is there something I personally need to change to make myself a better employee?

Employees who are willing to work to make the organization or themselves better not only demonstrate leadership potential, but begin to see change as less daunting and more a part of their everyday routine, he argues.

“If a true team member is continuously asking how they can improve, and they are the ones tied to the actual work, then this should lead to supportive buy-in, performance, and overall more effective and efficient change,” he says.

But sometimes it’s not clear who  is just giving lip service to supporting change and who is a team member who has the right attitude, skills and knowledge to make a difference.

That’s why when an organization is trying to identify team members who will be effective change agents, they should look for those who:

  • Demonstrate persistence.  Look for individuals who keep their cool when things get tough. They don’t lash out, fall apart or head for happy hour every time things get difficult. They may even be the ones who crack a joke during the most difficult or stressful times.
  • Set goals. Think about workers who have expressed a desire for career development.  They’re the first ones to volunteer for projects, to ask to attend cross-functional training or are active networkers. Ambitious individuals often are good change agents because they look at challenges as a way to advance their own career.
  • Possess the right attitude. Those team members who just go along with the group to avoid arguments or who seem to ruffle the feathers of everyone they meet are going to impede change instead of propelling it. You need confident people whose top priority is ensuring goals are met.
  • Get it. Change agents need to be well connected, both with senior managers and those in other departments. They need to understand the business and industry, not just their department. These employees grasp the importance of staying connected to others in the organization, and continue to forge strong ties with their networking. A study published in the Harvard Business Review found that change agents who were most successful were the ones who networked across disconnected groups and were close to individuals considered “fence-sitters.”
  • Are graceful under pressure. Think back to times when a project has gone off course, or deadlines were very tight.  Who managed to stay focused? Who did others turn to when they ran into problems? Who seemed to maintain a healthy balance during such times? Change agents need to be able to maintain their perspective and not become overwhelmed.
  • Show empathy.  Change is often very difficult for some people, and change agents need to be prepared to listen to the doubts and anxieties of others. They can’t ignore resistance, because that will only make changes more stressful. Who has shown a willingness to hear the arguments of others during meetings, or often asks open-ended questions? These are the people who are good listeners and will take the time to help others move past resistance to change.

Finally, many experts say that a key question to ask when seeking key change agents is: Who would you miss if your company went out of business tomorrow, and why?

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