Be a Change Agent

It's not just what you do; it's how you do it that really counts

by Davis Balestracci

The quality profession is no longer static but is in a state of unprecedented transition. Practitioners must begin to see themselves as change agents facilitating an ongoing organizational quality improvement process.

Sound Familiar?

  • When you proudly announce someone's job is merely waste, are you puzzled when he or she doesn't thank you?
  • When change is imminent, do you wonder why employees focus on all the reasons they can't do it?
  • Are you frustrated when another one of your internal seminars got good reviews, but people went back to their old habits when they left the classroom?
  • When management tells you how committed it is to quality, yet shoots down another one of your proposals, do you take it personally and deliver your next response in a more strident tone or commiserate with co-workers about how misunderstood your role is?

All of the above is merely normal behavior and related to basic human needs of survival, acknowledgment (love) and feeling important (self-esteem).

The problem is, mature behavior is possible only when these needs are in balance. If any one of the needs is even perceived as being threatened, that's where all the energy goes--guaranteeing change will not occur.

Changing Behavior

To be an effective change agent you must create significant cultural and behavioral changes at many levels of an organization. This definitely has to be a nonlinear process because adult learners are a particularly ornery breed, frequently thinking they already know best.

It's a universal given that quality professionals who present internal seminars are frustrated by a lack of results from their huge investments in organizational training and education. Have you ever thought of what could be perceived as threats inherent in your seminars? What about cultural attitudes toward your role? What are the implications for redesign?

Intensive in-house seminars on quality subjects, delivered under the delusion that participants will attain mastery of the material, are frankly a waste of time and effort. It's time for quality professionals to own up to that fact.

Instead, turn any "poor me, no one will pay attention to what I'm saying" victim behavior response inside out by taking responsibility for the results of in-house training. Figure out what part of the problem is your fault and what part is out of your control, following Faith Ralston's 100% Responsibility Exercise.1

Make two lists: one of everything you did to contribute to the lack of results and one of what others did. Revisit everything on the list of problems caused by others and, without blaming yourself, determine what you could have done to prevent the problem and identify why you didn't do it in the first place.


Morris Massey's RESULTS acronym puts it another way:2

  • Respect. Realize others are doing the best they know how, given their unique value programming.
  • Empathy. Develop a sensitivity to other people's perceptions being different from yours.
  • Scanning. Become aware of and plan to deal formally with situational and environmental land mines--others' and your own.
  • Unity. Have and keep the perspective of identifying and respecting the needs of the business.
  • Love. Commit to colleagues' success through gentle coaching and by treating difficult behaviors as unintended. Never attack mistakes on a personal level.
  • Truth/trust. Truth can be the honest expression of feelings. Massey says, "The truth is the truth is the truth...and if you can't talk about it, you can't fix it." R.L. Wing paraphrases legendary Chinese Tao philosopher Lao Tzu in saying that if you don't trust the people, you make them untrustworthy.3
  • Self-awareness. You and you alone are responsible for the values you bring to work, the behaviors they make you exhibit, their effects on people's beliefs about you and the consequences of your behavior.

Mind Shifts

To accomplish mind shifts, quality professionals need to make significant (and difficult) personal shifts in their thinking. Ask yourself some of the following questions:

  • Do I want to be effective ... or just right?
  • If I can't change a situation, do I need to change the way I think about it?
  • Are things I perceive as barriers to results real?
  • Am I wasting time or energy on things I can't control or influence?
  • What have I learned from an experience?

Remember that anger represents the past, and fear represents the future. Take control of situations by acknowledging that anger and fear exist. Learn to swallow your ego 10 times before breakfast and another dozen times before lunch.

Then move on and keep yourself and others focused on the present needs of your organization. In that way, quality professionals can become truly effective agents of change.


1. Faith Ralston, Emotions@Work: Get Great Results by Encouraging Accountability and Resolving Conflicts, 1stBooks Library, 2002.

2. Morris Massey, Just Get It! (105-minute video), Enterprise Media, www.enterprisemedia.com/Search2.html.

3. R. L. Wing, The Tao of Power: Lao Tzu's Classic Guide to Leadership, Influence and Excellence, Main Street Books, Double-day, 1986.

DAVIS BALESTRACCI, principal of Harmony Consulting in Glendale, AZ, is a guest columnist for "Career Corner" this month. He earned a master's degree in statistics from the University of Minnesota. A member of ASQ, Balestracci is chair-elect of ASQ's Statistics Division and is primary author of Quality Improvement: Practical Applications for Medical Group Practice, second edition, published by the Center for Research in Ambulatory Health Care Administration.

If you would like to comment on this article, please post your remarks on the Quality Progress Discussion Board on www.asqnet.org, or e-mail them to editor@asq.org.

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