Stage 1.8   Danger Signals

At best, the change relationship can be an exciting and rewarding experience, but there can be times when it degenerates into a stagnant and meaningless exercise which produces only frustration and disappointment. Sometimes, you may feel that you have to go ahead with a project regardless of an unpromising relationship. However, there are other times when it is really important for you to question whether to start at all. Below, we have listed a few circumstances which should tip you off to the existence of a bad relationship and a probable failure of your change effort.

A long history of unresponsiveness to change

If the client is persistently indifferent, showing no interest either in changing himself or herself or in accepting innova­tions of any sort, then there is probably little point in spending much energy trying to help him or her. "Interest," of course, is sometimes hard to measure and you should not assume that the first try will be greeted with enthusiasm. Nevertheless, even though you may view your change agent talents as unique and your ability to bring about change as impressive, you would do well to study the past history of your prospective client in dealing with similar change efforts. If the system has persistently responded to change efforts with indifference or rejection, it is probably a signal that the system is a poor bet for future efforts.

The client wants to use you as a pawn

Sometimes clients will be eager to seek outside agents only to serve their special purposes in an internal power struggle. The change agent should be very wary of this common type of exploitation.

  • In rare instances, if you have your eyes wide open, you may be able to turn such a situation to your own advantage.


The client is already committed to a particular position

Sometimes a client will be eager to enlist the support of a change agent only to help prove a point or to affirm a position to which the client is already committed. Under such circumstances there is little opportunity for genuine reciprocity and real innovation in the client system.

The client is powerless in his or her own house

Sometimes the contact person in the client system will be eager to invite a change agent into the system, and will be open to new ideas and wholeheartedly committed to cooperation, even though he or she has no real power to effect change in others. Some client systems, for example, will be completely dominated by a remote and inaccessible leadership which is fundamentally hostile to change, while it allows a certain degree of latitude to the membership to "play games." This pattern is frequently found in bureaucratic business organizations controlled by conservative boards of directors or school districts controlled ultimately by unprogressive school boards.


The client shows many signs of pathology or major incapacity

Change agents should learn to recognize certain signs of pathology in a client system which will make a continuing relationship difficult or impossible. Among such signs might be excessive rigidity or obsessive concern with particular kinds of issues, an excessive tendency to externalize conflicts and to see issues in rigidly black-and-white terms. The system may also suffer from some sort of incapacity, such as an inability to effectively assemble resources when needed, to communicate clearly, to assemble key members for important meetings, and to provide financial and administrative backup for inside members of the change team. Regrettably, such signs of incapacity may only reveal themselves long after the project is underway. However, if such signs do appear in large number in very early stages, it may signal to you as the change agent that your efforts will be wasted. On the other hand, no single one of these signs would necessarily indicate a "no-go" situation. Indeed, various signs of pathology and incapacity may be singled out by the change agent as targets for change effort.

Client responds negatively to your well-managed initial encounterThe initial encounter is partly a test of the client as well as the change agent. If you feel you have done everything right in presenting yourself as "friendly," "familiar," "rewarding," and "responsive" but are then greeted with hostility or indifference, this may bode ill for the future. On the other hand, you should be very cautious in drawing such a conclusion. Sometimes a tough exterior is simply one of the client's norms in dealing with initial encounters. It is important to assess the true feelings of the client, which may be at variance with outward appearance.