Stage 1.7   What is the Ideal Relationship?

Good relationships have no formula and each has its own unique dimensions, but the best have several common features. We suggest nine attributes that would make an ideal base for change agent-client relations. Use these nine points as a checklist and a yardstick to assess your relationship. And don't just do it once; look at this list again and again as you progress through the change project and ask yourself if you are continuing to relate well to your client, improving on weak areas, and making the relationship ever stronger in the service of the change.



The relationship should be one in which both parties are able to give and take. To the extent that there is transfer of information, there should be transfer both ways, from agent to client and client to agent. This reciprocity increases the mutual appreciation of the problem and makes the diagnosis more accurate. One-way relationships tend to breed dependency and inhibit the initiative of the client to help himself or herself.


Openness to new ideas is the sine qua non for innovation. Both the client and the change agent should be willing and ready to receive new inputs from each other. There are several dimensions to openness that should be considered, e.g.,

  • openness to receive new ideas;
  • active eagerness to seek out new ideas;
  • willingness to share new ideas with others;
  • openness to listen to the problems and ideas of others;
  • openness to give authentic feedback to each other; and
  • an active desire for self-renewal.


Realistic expectations

All too often the client will entertain the belief that the change agent is some sort of miracle worker, and sometimes the change agent will not discourage this view. The client may imagine that enormous benefits will come from the innovation. At later stages of the change process these unrealistic expectations may return to haunt the project, giving undue disillusionment and discouragement to the client and change agent alike. An important rule of change agentry is, therefore, to set reasonably realistic expectations from the outset. Do not oversell yourself or the innovation.

Expectations of reward

The change agent should not, on the other hand, set expectations too low, because it is equally important to give the client some reason for optimism, an idea of how much bette things would be if the innovation were to be successful. The change agent must be seen as providing a valuable resource which will solve problems and provide the client with a significantly improved state of affairs. Sometimes it may be necessary to start out the relationship by providing some ­token to the client of a future reward. Demonstrations or pilot programs sometimes serve this purpose because they show the client what can be done without committing to major involvement in time and expense. The client needs some tangible evidence that you are a helpful person. If you can provide the client with even the smallest bit of such evidence, you will be nurturing the belief that the relationship will be rewarding in the long run as well as the short run.



Successful relationships must have some structural basis, some definition of roles, working procedures, the flow and integration of tasks and responsibilities, and expected outcomes. There will always be the question of how much ­structure is advisable and at what stages. Judging how much ­structure lies at the heart of skilled change agentry. Some degree of definition of the situation and the understandings between the parties is always desirable, but it is also desirable ­to be somewhat open-ended, to leave room for changing the relationship as you go along, expanding it in some areas and I perhaps contracting it in others.

The formalization of structure in a contract is often advisable, particularly where the change agent sees certain aspects of the relationship as problematic, as, for example, when there is reason to doubt the commitment of the leadership of the client system. In any case, such contracts should probably be open-ended on a reciprocal basis. That is, they should specify a sequence of points in the process at which the project could be terminated or redefined by mutual consent.


Equal power

It is difficult to build a successful relationship between parties of grossly unequal power. This is perhaps the overriding consideration in including an outside agent in a change agent team.  When the power of the two parties is equivalent, power itself no longer plays the same role in bringing about change, and its distortive effects on the process are minimized. Where there is an unequal distribution of power, the appearance of change may be brought about by the compliance of the weaker partner without the commitment necessary for lasting change. Under most circumstances, neither the change agent nor the client should have the power to compel the other to do anything.


Minimum threat

The very idea of change is threatening to most of us, particularly when presented by a outsider who is billed as a world pretty much the way it is, 'warts and all,' and we look upon changes first as potential disturbances before we see them as potential benefits. It is, therefore, most important that the change agent do whatever is possible to minimize the perception of threat.


Confrontation of differences

The change agent and the client should have the ability to talk out their differences. They need to be able to be frank with one another on critical matters which disturb them about their relationship. Suspicion of hidden motives should be frankly discussed and fears of exploitation brought out into the open. A relationship which tolerates the honest confrontation of differences may be a stormy one at times, but it will also be a healthy one and a strong one when the going gets tough.

Involvement of all relevant parties

As noted earlier, the change agent must relate not only to ­the client but also to those others in the community who are most directly influential in the client system. In school settings this usually means the school board and perhaps the local chamber of commerce, the newspapers, and the houses of worship. It is most important that these other relevant parties be involved to a degree, but it is not so easy to decide what degree is appropriate. Those "others" whom you have initially identified as highly potent should at least know that you are there, know why you are there, and approve to some degree of your being there.

There are few change agent-client relationships that will live up to all of these criteria. One must usually settle for less than the ideal. Nevertheless, it is well to keep these nine points in mind in making the best of what you have. Be aware of where you are weak and how you can make improvements as the opportunity arises.