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People: Relationships for Change Part II

Updated: Apr 5, 2020

Change agents prioritize relationship by designing their organizations with open systems. Open systems build social capital by giving opportunity and access for people on the inside of their organizations to interact with those on the outside, and vice versa. These inside-outside interactions often blur the lines of division and hierarchy that characterize more closed systems. Similarly, change agents experience blurry lines between the work of change that took place inside their organizations versus outside. The reason for this is that change often takes place as a result of listening to the feedback of the people we serve, and then seeking to develop trust with them by acting on their feedback.

In my research, I discovered that intentionally asking for and receiving feedback was a significant piece of the continuous process of discernment and learning. Change agents desired feedback from diverse stakeholders with a genuine desire for collaboration and collective action. Feedback determined the direction of change as well as informed how the organization itself should pivot to better accomplish a change mission. Change agents developed deeper trust with stakeholders when they acted upon feedback rather than simply listening to it. Although the act of listening to feedback was critical, action catalyzed from a feedback partnership built credibility and trust with people who had experienced change failure. Feedback loops also created a level of continuous accountability to the people change agents sought to serve. Worth repeating: The depth of trust depended on the degree of action taken based upon feedback or stories exchanged. Therefore, the act of listening or a posture of genuine curiosity did not by themselves deepen trust, especially with those being served. Regardless of the size or type of change cycle, change agents must recognize the importance of completing cycles of change to the subsequent construction of their integrity and trustworthiness as a change agent. For this reason, commitment to change over time that includes care for people along the way becomes a critical factor of change success.

With an openness to being shaped by and for others, the change agents in my research led organizations that facilitated collective change making. The design of their organizations reflected participants’ personal ways of interacting with others, which were often characterized by a posture of humility and learning. Due to their high value for learning, the open design of their organizations provided the optimal conditions not only to incubate change but also for the organization itself to change — both of which require considerable and continuous learning. This can be described as a social learning process constructed through a social and relational network of people and organizations. Westoby and Lyons argue that this “social network creates the crucial container that enables people to shift their perceptions and take the risk of collective organizing and social action” (2017, 228). This social framing of learning helps make sense of the type of learning that takes place in order to build a foundation of trust that can propel collective change.

Consistent with the character of change agents in my research, it is important to mention that there continues to be a strong others-centered focus as the change journey moves toward increasing empowerment and facilitation of agency. This movement was important to change agents because they did not want to create a culture of change dependency or change drift by stakeholders riding on the coattails of a change initiative. They desired stakeholders to take ownership over change and to join them as co-creators of a bigger movement. In fact, Komives, Wagner and Associates (2017) state that partnerships create momentum for greater collective social impact. For this reason, participants remarked that relational bridge building was a co-constructed endeavor and took relationships beyond the initial development of trust that was needed to introduce change itself. Co-construction involved a different dimension of trust characterized by shared power and faith in new partners to work collectively in the difficult tensions of change complexity. Some scholars refer to this kind of leadership as “boundary-spanning collaboration” (Ospina and Foldy 2010, 292; Gasson and Elrod 2006) because organizational boundaries are crossed in order to foster collective action. Ospina and Foldy also state, “Collective action is, therefore, essential but it cannot happen without first connecting across differences. Bridging differences within a complex web of interconnected yet separate actors is not easy. Yet the potential for connectedness is always present in human beings” (2010, 292). We can say that the nonprofit change agents in this study exhibit the use of systems thinking, which is the “the ability to understand interconnections in such a way as to achieve a desired purpose” (Stroh 2015, 16).

In summary, it was of utmost importance to change agents that they lived out their personal and organizational values, which highlighted their desire to live a life of integrity and cohesion. Since all change agents in my research valued both relationships and communication, I will underscore that change agents consistently looked for ways to create and sustain multi-layered and multi-dimensional interconnections to leverage them toward a desired change. Without the desire for interconnections or the skill to facilitate them, the work of change cannot possibly be as impactful.


Gasson, S., and E.M. Elrod. 2006. “Distributed Knowledge Coordination Across Virtual

Organization Boundaries.” Proceedings of the 2006 International Conference on Information Systems. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: 947−966.

Komives, Susan R., Wagner, Wendy, and Associates. 2017. Leadership for a Better World. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Ospina, Sonia and Erica Foldy. 2010. “Building Bridges from the Margins: The Work of

Leadership in Social Change Organizations.” The Leadership Quarterly. 21: 292-307.

Stroh, David Peter. 2015. Systems Thinking for Social Change. White River Junction, VT:

Chelsea Green Publishing.

Westoby, Peter and Kristen Lyons. 2017. “The Place of Social Learning and Social Movement in Transformative Learning: A Case Study of Sustainability Schools in Uganda.” Journal of Transformative Education. 15, no. 3: 223-240.

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