Becoming an Agent for Change

How to be an influence in your company—at any and every level David C. Miller


“This is going to be trouble. We can’t continue like this.” These were Laura’s thoughts as she sat in a weekly planning meeting with three of her peers. One of the company’s big initiatives rested on the shoulders of these four leaders and their respective teams working together in lockstep.

The new senior vice president (SVP), to whom all four leaders reported, recently reassigned the project lead role to Andrew. Brian wasn’t happy about that fact, as this had been his role previously. But Brian wasn’t saying anything—at least not to his new boss or Andrew. After the meetings, however, he complained to Laura about how Andrew must have lobbied for the position behind everyone’s collective back.

Michelle felt the same way—insecure about her significance in the light of decisions made by the new SVP. She also didn’t trust Andrew and made sure to only confide in Laura and Brian when discussing her concerns.

And, of course, the tension on the team did not go unnoticed by Andrew. The passive-aggressive responses to project requests were proof. Why was he getting the wrath of half the team for the SVP’s decision?

This team was low on trust and high on back-channel communication. Unfortunately, this unhealthy way of relating was not unusual in this company’s culture. Laura felt caught in the middle, and she knew their only chance to be successful on the project was for this leadership team to pull together. There needed to be a change—and fast!

Changing a Culture

It’s easy to get discouraged in an organization when things aren’t going well. One of the hardest things to do is influence a company’s culture. Most employees feel powerless to affect change. But as a leader, you can reframe your perspective by looking at these challenges as opportunities to make a significant and positive impact.

Leaders are change agents. Actually, it’s more accurate to say if you’re an agent of change, you’re taking up the mantle of leadership, regardless of your organizational position. You can be an influential force at any level. In my years as a professional coach, I discovered a theme: Most people are most inspired when their job makes an impact. The good news is we all have an opportunity to make our organizations better. All companies have problems, and there is always room for improvement—doing it faster, with less waste, with better teamwork, with more effective communication, with enhanced alignment and so on.

This article explores four skills involved in being an agent of change. Whether it’s changing a process or the way people engage in that process (like the earlier example), you will want to both demonstrate these skills and, if you have people reporting to you, impart them to your team.

Be Courageous

It will take tremendous courage to go against the grain and challenge the status quo. You will no doubt meet some resistance. But if you want to make an impact, you must face the scary giants of the existing situation. You’ll be poking some bears, and it will feel uncomfortable (more on this later). The key is to focus on your mission: making your organization better.

Start With Understanding

Before you start challenging the status quo, take the time to understand why it’s there in the first place. Understand why others may want to cling to the way things are before you work to disrupt them. Three things will happen:

  1. You will develop more nuanced insights that will inform how you work to influence change.
  2. A greater level of empathy will inform your actions. People don’t want to perpetuate a bad situation—they want to maintain a sense of control and certainty. How can we change things, help honor their needs and alleviate their fears?
  3. You will develop a deeper connection and trust with those you are working to influence. It’s much easier to influence a friend than an adversary. The person who seems like an obstacle (or shall I say, enemy), has goals and fears, too. By putting a human face on the person, they are no longer “an obstacle to overcome,” but a teammate to win over.

Call Out the Elephants in the Room

Change agents need to identify the elephants in the room—the underlying issues everyone sees but very few, if any, are addressing. An effective skill to do this is to “articulate what’s going on.”

Using the example introduced at the start of this article, Laura did this at the next team meeting by saying: “Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like there’s a lot of tension on the team around the reassigned roles on this project. Maybe we should talk about this. What does everyone think?” Now Laura has laid out the issue and presented an opportunity for the team to address concerns together in the here and now.

I’ve seen this simple, ice-breaking technique work wonders because it creates an atmosphere for sharing comfortably and honestly, and great progress can result. Unfortunately, in this case, only Andrew acknowledged he noticed the tension, and Brian and Michelle denied there was a problem. Laura was disappointed but also was reminded that change takes time and effort. She can still influence the team by using the next skill.

Don’t Dance the Dance

Change agents refuse to cooperate with unhealthy cultural norms. They set healthy boundaries. They don’t “dance the dance.” In any group, team or organization, there are behaviors (or dance steps) that emerge in the culture. Think about your work culture: What are the prevailing attitudes? What are the norms? Is healthy challenge welcome? How do people receive new, innovative ideas? Do they nod in agreement in public, but disagree in private?

In Laura’s situation, there was great tension on the team, but no one was talking about it—at least not to the right people. The fact that Laura is caught in the middle was partially her fault for tolerating her colleagues complaining to her instead of speaking to each other.

Leaders need to ask the difficult questions. For example, whenever Brian comes to Laura to complain about Andrew, she could ask questions, such as:

  • “Have you spoken to Andrew about how you feel?”
  • “What would happen if you shared your concerns about your role with the SVP?”
  • “Maybe we should all discuss this as a team. What do you think?”
  • “You said in the team meeting that everything was OK. Help me understand why you’re sharing concerns with me now instead of raising them in the team meeting.”

These types of questions can redirect divisive behaviors to ones that are constructive. But be aware that when you change the dance steps, it will disrupt the established culture equilibrium. In plain and simple terms, some people will not like it; others will welcome it. You’re stirring the pot. You may feel like you’re making things worse, but this pot-stirring needs to happen for transformation to take place.

And now, as a change agent, you need to hold firm and circle back to the first skill: Be courageous!

David C. Miller, FSA, MAAA, PCC, is the director of Annuity Pricing at USAA. He is also a professional certified coach with the International Coach Federation and has a passion for helping develop leaders to become change agents.

Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.

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