The Journey to Becoming an Agent of Change

dandelion growing in rocks

How is it that those who have benefited most from the existing systems come to realise that they must do their part to change them? Our latest research helps to unpack this journey.

The global pandemic has shone a stark light on entrenched inequalities that affect everything from access to healthcare, education, and decent work to heightened vulnerability to the worst impacts of the climate crisis. We are all embedded in a system of production and consumption that reinforces the privileges of a few at the expense of a majority of others and the planet.

In crises, as in the fight for change, we are not all equal. Some of us are insiders to the system who have reaped its advantages, due to our socio-economic background, our access to education, our citizenship, our gender, or our race. Yet, as insiders, we can have significant influence, including within our organisations. We have resources, skills, and networks that we can leverage to challenge the status quo. This makes it especially important for us to consider how our actions may help address the crises that we face.

So what then, does it take for insiders to become agents of change? It’s a question that we were eager to explore.

Over the course of four years, we explored how privileged insiders around the world become agents of change, ultimately altering their own professional roles to direct their energy towards addressing societal issues. Some left their organizations to start new initiatives, while others worked within their organizations to effect change from the inside.

Our research shows that, for most of us, the journey to becoming a change agent takes a remarkably similar route. Our findings may help you to better understand this path and recognize and reflect on your own journey to change agency. This in turn may enable you to help others to navigate their own journey.

It all starts with a feeling

A common thread among our interviewees was a growing uneasiness, whether it was about the difference between their personal situation and the fate of others around them or the impacts of their lifestyle on the environment.

You may be experiencing a similar uneasiness and you may be tempted to avoid it or to dismiss it. Or you may engage in rationalization in order to defend your own actions or even defend the systems around you. 

Don’t. 

Instead, sit with the discomfort and explore its meaning. Because reflecting upon what you feel is the key to taking further action. By reflecting on your uneasiness, you are likely to become motivated to learn more and recognize underlying patterns of systemic injustice in our society.

Acknowledge your own role in reinforcing the status quo

This process of exploration will lead you to face and acknowledge your own role in the perpetuation of these patterns of systemic injustice.

While deeply unsettling, this realisation and this sense of complicity are crucial to enable transformative action. Recognising that we are part of the problem is an important step in making positive change. It motivates action, and it can also help identify an initial focus for such action. And, as the old campfire songs reminds us: “…you can’t go under it, you can’t go over it, you can’t go around it, we’re going to need to go through it.”

Small actions matter… more than you think

It can be daunting to address systemic injustices. It can be difficult to know where to start and you may feel stuck. One thing that we learned is that taking actions, no matter how small, helps to relieve this tension, amplifying the desire for change and unlocking further opportunities to contribute to it.

The first actions people take may not be very bold. They may not appear very meaningful.  Yet, they are an essential starting point. Not only do they mark the shift towards active engagement, they also provide a fertile ground for new insights and solutions to emerge.

Where do you start?

Think about ways that you can leverage your privilege, your resources, your skills, and your influence to disrupt current assumptions and practices in your work place and in spaces around you. You can publicly question the status quo, create the space for discussions to occur, or help shift ideas and perception in a transformative direction.

You can also work to adapt or reframe the role you play in your organisation or in your profession. This means challenging the idea of what is possible in a profession or an industry and working to pilot new assumptions and practices in your field. It means reformulating what it means to be a lawyer, an investor, a teacher, or an entrepreneur, and promoting new practices consistent with this new understanding.

Helping others navigate their own journeys

By reflecting on your own journey to change agency, you can develop empathy and insights about how to support others around you. Here are some actions to consider:

  • Provide your leaders or other influential insiders with opportunities to witness the impact of particular issues first-hand. Unfiltered experiences help to generate feelings of uneasiness and kick-start the journey.

  • Be patient and let them experience a sense of discomfort, but also offer empathy and support. Nudge them forward as they begin to ask questions. 

  • They will likely feel compelled to learn more. This is a great time to arrange for them  to engage with those closest to the issue or to hear from people who are most influential to them and are further along in their understanding.

  • Create a safe space for them to ask questions and explore issues without fear of judgement. 

  • Use storytelling to help them to reflect on the past, make sense of the present, and speculate on the future.

  • Seek out their input on potential solutions to issues and what role the organization could play in supporting systems change.

Whether you are just embarking on your own path to change agency or are well underway and interested in supporting others, our Becoming an Agent of Change guide offers useful insights on the journey and how to navigate it.