How to establish trust and credibility as an internal change agent


Trust as an internal change agent

Traditionally, many organisations have relied on the large consultancies to initiate and lead strategic or operational change. Over recent years, however, we have noticed a trend towards change being driven and supported from the ‘inside’ of organisations.

Added on 23 July 2015 by Andrew Day

There are a growing number of organisations that are establishing specialist departments responsible for change initiatives, such as OD, Organisation Effectiveness or Quality Improvement – or where support functions, such as HR, are being up-skilled to act as internal change agents. Where external consultants are being used, they are working in partnership with internals as sounding boards, to provide expertise in specialist areas or to provide additional support during implementation. 
Internal change agents are, however, faced with the challenge of being a ‘prophet in one’s own land’.   No matter what their levels of expertise or experience, internals often do not feel listened to or taken seriously. This is despite some of the clear advantages that internals have over externals, such as their understanding of the organisation, its culture and what has been tried and not worked in the past. 
Over the past year, the OD & Change practice at Ashridge has been conducting a research project into the experience of internal change agents of facilitating and enabling change. As part of the research, we spoke to a number of internal practitioners, such as OD managers or HR Directors, who had successfully managed to influence the change agenda. Critically, these individuals and their teams, by establishing trust and credibility with influential individuals in their organisations, had established a licence to operate and were valued for their expertise and insight.    
So what were the key strategies being used by these internal change agents to develop their credibility and influence?
  1. Start by working with the ‘early adopters’ or those individuals who are willing to try something different and believe that change needs to be approached in a different way.
  2. Work below the radar until a change starts to take off and then encourage those involved to share positive stories and successes. This inevitably starts to attract attention from others who then become curious about what is happening.
  3. Be helpful and find those issues that people really care about and want to work on together to improve their lives and their products or services. Too often internals can pursue changes or ideals that they believe should happen but others do not care about.
  4. Focus on small but significant projects and make them a success. In contrast to conventional wisdom,  large scale change is rarely brought about through grand visions and plans. Often small and symbolic changes trigger others to act and change starts to spread like a virus rather than as a result of a ‘grand plan’.
  5. Many years ago, the renowned OD practitioner, Roger Harrison, advised internal consultants to work with the forces that are supportive of change, rather than against defensiveness and resistance.  Equally, he advised internals to work with the relatively healthy parts of the organisation and avoid ‘lost causes’. Internals in our study were working where they saw potential to make a difference.
  6. Find and develop sponsorship at senior levels of the organisation.  Contrary to what is widely advocated by many change practitioners, active sponsorship is not necessary for all change initiatives.  The minimum level that is required is permission for changes to be initiated. The next level, which is more desirable, is support and encouragement for change. Ideally, senior leaders would actively participate. However, this is not always necessary and change agents often push too hard against the resistances of senior individuals to getting involved.
  7. Work with leaders and sponsors to mobilise a ‘critical mass’ of activists for each change project from across all parts and levels of the organisation. These are the individuals who are going to act, role model change and challenge others to change.
  8. Work collaboratively with other functions, such as HR, comms and strategy, to develop their capability and develop supporters and allies. Equally, avoid creating enemies and adversaries who feel threatened by your existence. This requires a sensitivity to tribal politics and territorial boundaries.
  9. Act as a connector. Use your knowledge and networks to connect individuals and change projects from across the organisation. Putting individuals in contact with others not only helps change happen but it also builds your credibility as a networker and someone who can see systemic connections and opportunities.
  10. Be Pragmatic and flexible. Beware of trying to follow a set methodology because this is how things ‘should’ happen.  In the real world, change is messy and improvised. Those individuals who in our study had credibility were prepared to roll up their sleeves and get involved. They pushed the boundaries as far as they believed was possible and challenged when they believed they would be heard.

Effective change agents influence through their relationships, expertise and ability to help rather than through formal authority and control. This requires them to be trusted and to have credibility in their organisations. In the future, organisations are going to need multiple change agents across the whole organisation, rather than relying on a small group of internal or external specialists.

If you want to develop your skills as a change agent then please take a look at our program on Consulting and Change in Organisations.

Ashridge also runs a Masters in Organisational Change (AMOC)