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by Marjorie Kostelnik, Ph.D.

We’ve all been there – gotten excited about an idea, introduced a new practice, or planned an innovative educational program only to see it fizzle or face rejection. You may wonder why promising ideas and programs sometimes fail to gain traction? In most cases, the answer lies in the fact that you are asking people to change – shift to a different way of thinking or adopt a new way of behaving. Unfortunately, change is one of the hardest things we can ask anyone to do.

Change is Tough!

Changing long-standing behaviors is hard work. Even when we are excited about a potential change, experience tells us that it doesn’t take long for most people to revert to old habits.
So, what does this mean for your work with Service members and their families? Should you avoid developing new programs or assume that so-so results are all you can expect? The answer is NO, but with a caveat. For change to take hold you need to ‘transform’ yourself into a change agent.

What Successful Change Agents Do

Simply declaring that a change is about to happen, doesn’t guarantee that it actually will or that it will turn out as hoped. Something has to spark the change and that is usually ‘someone’ who assumes the role of change agent. Change agents serve as catalysts for change in people and organizations – they nudge, provoke and support others into thinking, feeling and behaving in ways that are new to them and that they might not be able to achieve entirely on their own. Some ways change agents describe themselves and their work are depicted in the ‘word cloud’ below.

As you can see, there are many variables that contribute to supporting the change process. Some may be qualities or skills you already possess, others are ones you can learn.

You Can Be a Change Agent Too

Some change agents are famous – Martin Luther King, Oprah Winfrey, and Malala Yousafzai all come to mind. However, fame is not required to achieve success. Effective change agents come in varied personalities, backgrounds and roles. In fact, everyone has the potential to influence positive change in others. Those that do it best are driven by their desire to make a difference. They also incorporate the following principles and best practices into their approaches.

Principle 1: Change is a process that evolves

Changes in people and organizations happen one person at a time. Also, individuals vary in their reactions to the change. Here are some typical reactions:

Early Adopters – These folks are eager to engage in the new practice. They like being initiators – trying out novel ideas and strategies, recovering quickly from setbacks, and working on variations to improve their performance. Early adopters become advocates for the change and are potential resources for modeling and helping others move forward.

Slow to warm up – A large number of people in most groups fall in this mid-category. They take a wait and see attitude toward the new idea, observing how the early adopters fare and watching for ways to gradually take on the new expectations in their own fashion.

Resistors – These are the people who maintain a ‘no way’ attitude from day one. At best, they eventually become latecomers to the change; at worst, they engage in actions that actively undermine the process.

Distribution of People’s Reactions to Change

Of course there are other reactions too, but these are the most typical. Because people’s reactions vary, the flow of change tends to occur unevenly, rather than smoothly or all at once.

Best Practices: Support those who have the most potential to change first rather than concentrating on the hard-core resistors.

  • Encourage the early adopters. Don’t assume they can do it alone or without encouragement from you.
  • Rally the middle. Help slow to warm up group members gain confidence to adopt some piece of the innovation. Recognize their efforts and reinforce them when they try. Help them recognize their progress and assist them in finding allies in the group.
  • Don’t spend a lot of time on the resistors and naysayers. Work around them; do not appease them too much. A few will eventually move toward the middle and eventually take on the change. Some will never get on-board.

Instinctively, we often try to deal with the naysayers immediately because their presence is so toxic. However, best practice tells us that the majority of the group falls into the first two categories. If you can get this majority to engage in the change, resistant behavior has a much smaller impact.

Principle 2: Change requires people to deal with feelings of incompetence.

Most people have become ‘experts’ at doing certain things certain ways. When we ask them to change those behaviors we are requiring them to become novices again, at least for a while. For those who have mastered their ‘job’ or a life situation the old way, it is painful to enter the unknown and unskilled state that change requires. As a result, the period of flux between carrying out ‘old’ practices well and becoming really good at the ‘new’ approach is characterized by:

Disequilibrium – uncertainty; feeling out sync with how they have ‘always’ done something and new demands

Vulnerability – dealing with the unknown and coping with inevitable bumps in the road

Awkwardness – the discomfort that happens when a person’s new behaviors are not quite ready for ‘prime time’

Best Practices: Remind people that change requires new learning and that such learning can be both exhilarating and unsettling. Acknowledge uncomfortable feelings. Assist individuals in anticipating next steps and in recognizing the progress they are making.

Principle 3: Change involves a three-step sequence of perceptions and behaviors:

Awareness – Figuring out what is needed in relation to a change involves both self-awareness and awareness of others.

Deciding – Incorporating change into your behavior and into program practices requires a conscious decision to change.

Acting – To implement change, individuals must figure out what is actually needed in the situation (perspective taking) and possess skills necessary for making the change happen (instrumental know-how)

Best Practices:

o Self- awareness – What current knowledge and skills will help you support the change? What do you need to do personally to embrace the change?
o Other-awareness – What are you hearing, seeing and learning? What do others need or want in relation to the change? What skills are others bringing to the table?
o Make a conscious decision to act.
o Make decisions public – tell people you are making the decision, get others to make their decision public too.
o Don’t wait for the change strategy to be perfect or for everyone to be on board before deciding to move forward.
o Engage in perspective taking – Scan the situation to determine what is absolutely necessary for change to happen. Know the context in which you are operating. Get feedback from those directly impacted by the potential change to expand understanding and perfect implementation.
o Assess instrumental know-how among people carrying out the change. Identify skills they possess as well as instrumental gaps to address.

Principle 4: Allow enough time for an innovation to take hold before assuming it is set or introducing something new.

Over the past 20 years well-researched sequences for managing change have been described for healthcare, education, and business. All of them range from a pre-awareness phase to full, successful implementation. Within these sequences, a distinction is made between ‘perfunctory use’ and ‘habitual use’ of a new strategy. Perfunctory use happens when individuals engage in a new practice at a fledgling level. During this phase they are unsure, make mistakes, and carry out the change in a halting manner. Gradually, with practice, perfunctory applications become more assured, more accurate and more second nature. This leads to habitual use. It provides a solid base upon which adopters can further refine, strategize and build more effective approaches over time. Thus, for real change to happen people must be performing new practices at the habitual level before shifting their attention to any new innovation.

Best Practices:

o Give people time to hone new practices. Allow time for mistakes and recalibration.
o Identify what ‘habitual use’ will look like in practice. For example, individuals might:
•   Carry out the strategy/program independently with few reminders,
•   Suggest ways to improve or expand the strategy.
•   Give examples of how they modified the strategy.
•   Express accomplishment or excitement about their use of the  strategy/program.
o Assess whether enough people are carrying out the practice well to enable the group to shift its attention to something new. If the answer is ‘no’ then hold off introducing the next innovation. It’s better to make a few changes that ‘stick’ than to try and do several that ultimately fail.

As you can see, there are many ways to enhance the change process. The future is brimming with possibilities for enhancing people’s lives and the settings in which they function. As an effective change agent, you will have the tools to help others master change more easily.


Marjorie Kostelnik is Assistant to the President at the University of Nebraska. She is the former dean of the College of Education and Human Sciences at the University and has worked with military family professionals throughout her academic career in Nebraska and earlier at Michigan State University.