“Change-Agent Paradox” – Nat Ware

October 8, 2016

In order to build support for a cause and effectively turn ideas into action, one must live in a state of positive dissatisfaction. One must be dissatisfied with the status quo, but optimistic about the prospect of achieving lasting positive change.

Nat Ware (Founder and CEO of 180 Degrees Consulting. Follow on Twitter @NatJWare.)


It is one thing to come up with new ideas for how to positively change the world. It is another thing for those ideas to become reality.

What separates those who are able to successfully build support for a cause, change the way things are done and start new initiatives, from those who cannot? What are the key characteristics of change-agents?

One key attribute of change-agents is that they are simultaneously positive and dissatisfied. This may seem like a paradox, but there is a high degree of truth to it.

When people seek to implement new ideas and change the status quo, they often think that their ideas are far superior to existing approaches. As such, it is common for them to be very critical of the current ways in which things are done. Whilst such criticism may be valid, it is not necessarily productive.

Excessive criticism is likely to lead to strong resistance from those with a vested interest in the status quo. Many people have dedicated their lives to causes which they are passionate about, and may take criticism personally. They probably do not wish to be told that the approach they have been following is incorrect or incomplete, or that their time and energy has been wasted. Direct criticism is likely to lead to cognitive dissonance, which often results in individuals dismissing views contrary to their own. To get buy-in from stakeholders and to bring about change, it is often necessary to remain positive.

Herein lies what can be referred to as the change-agent paradox. To be a change-agent, one must be positively dissatisfied. That is, one must be dissatisfied with the status quo, but positive about the prospect of achieving lasting positive change. This concept is captured in the following diagram:


This diagram revolves around two key questions.

The first is: “is there a need for change?” The need for change is often the primary factor motivating the actions of campaigners, charity workers, and social entrepreneurs. If a person has the belief that there is a need, then they are dissatisfied with the status quo. Conversely, if a person does not believe that there is an imperative for change, they are satisfied with the status quo.

The second question is: “what is the probability that positive change can occur?” If someone perceives that change is likely, they will display a positive attitude. On the other hand, if someone believes that it will be very difficult to achieve positive change, his or her attitude will be more negative. Perceptions of the likelihood of change being successful, and the attitude that this perception imbues in individuals, is important, as it affects the motivations of others.

To affect change, it is important to garner the support of others. People will be more motivated to join a cause if they believe it is possible to succeed in achieving the change that is sought. Everyone wants to back a winning horse, or at least a horse that has some chance of winning. A higher perceived likelihood of change leads to greater support for the cause, which increases the likelihood that the change will be achieved. Hence, the original expectation is partially self-fulfilling.

When these questions are considered together, it is possible to see a potential conflict facing people who want to be change-agents. Their motivation derives from them having a dissatisfied attitude regarding the status quo, but the motivations of others derive from them having a positive attitude regarding the future. Hence, change-agents must be positively dissatisfied. Rather than focussing on criticising what others are currently doing (as may be the temptation), they should rather focus on the positives associated with the proposed alternative. Because change-agents focus on improving the status quo, they are referred to as “maximisers” in the above diagram.

There are three other classifications of people. If someone is negatively dissatisfied, it means they recognize a need for change but think the change that is needed is unlikely to be achieved. Because of this, they are likely to become disgruntled and resign themselves to failure. For this reason they are called “resigners.” If people do not think there is an urgent need for change, but nevertheless recognise that the situation could be improved, they are called “satisficers.” They are content with a sub-optimal situation and are unlikely to push for change. Finally, there are those that think the status quo is fine and do not think it is possible to improve matters. They are “accepters” in the sense that they accept things as they are.

This change-agent framework can be summarised as follows: live in a state of positive satisfaction, and your potential will be unrealised. Live in a state of negative satisfaction, and your lack of potential will be realized. Live in a state of positive dissatisfaction, and you will change the world for the better. Live in a state of negative dissatisfaction, and the world will change you for the worse.

Be positively dissatisfied. Then the I D E A S you come up with will not become scrambled and pushed A S I D E, but rather will be turned into action.