Making change safe and sure

Much of what stands for reluctance or resistance to change in each one of us is the result of fear. It’s difficult to acknowledge that we need to be certain and to be safe in taking new steps before we can really commit ourselves to change. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been looking at different ways in which organisers can make the journey to change easier and more attractive for community members. We’ve looked at creating a network of buzz around the change, offering real hope for success, reshaping the setting for the change that can ease it’s path and last week we explored how the change itself needs to be re-designed for each stage of the change process. This week I want to see how its possible to broaden the community’s ability to cope with the honest fear and uncertainty that surrounds any change.

Free Falling by LaertesCTB CC FlickrChallenge the fear

We all need to be confident that we are able to make the change with dignity and our self-esteem intact. Fear of change is often more about the potential for our inner world to be damaged than that we will cut a knee or break a leg. Any organiser seeking to support a community through change needs to acknowledge that change can sometimes be humiliating, making community members feel uncertain and risk their positive view of themselves. Our job is to help expand their comfort zone so that change becomes possible. Many people in oppressed communities live with small gaps in their belief in their own ability to make successful change and so live with a crippling helplessness. Below I want to offer three ways to help people believe in their own self-efficacy and take a leap into uncertainty with confidence.

First time uncertainties

One of the most debilitating causes of our reluctance to change is unfamiliarity. When we have seen someone like ourselves successfully complete the task or fulfil the role and be rewarded for it, we can recognise a model for our own actions. Modelling is one key way to learn that the change is not so fearsome and indeed we use it in many contexts with children and young people. This fits easily with so many aspects of organising work such as house groups, stalls and listening events. Just allowing people to see the role being played or the activity done, ideally by someone similar to themselves and receiving praise, enjoyment or another reward as a result of success and bingo, you have offered a model to be followed.

Planning Nonviolent Direct Action by AAUP CC FlickrAnother key way to break down unfamiliarity is ‘touch and feel’. If you are seeking to change attitudes and behaviour, the most powerful way is to get community members physically involved. If the leaders are going to be negotiating for change, then get them role playing the encounter. If you want them well versed in the issues then give them the tools to get researching and taking action themselves. Run a workshop on taking direct action rather than handing out leaflets or offering advice alone. In the end, physical involvement will give people a real sense of how it feels to make the change.

Imaging success

Unfamiliarity is also experienced at the level of the imagination. Capturing people’s imagination with a well-told story that gives a blow-by-blow account of the actions taken by someone similar and how they found success and reward can really open up their imagination. If you are regularly recommending a specific change, it’s well worth creating a forceful and clearly structured story that you can routinely tell community members about how it worked elsewhere. Helping people imagine themselves doing the new thing can often give them enough confidence in their self-efficacy to take on the change.

Offering autonomy

A second area for organiser help in overcoming fear of change is in offering self-control or autonomy. No one likes it when the stakes are high and you find yourself at the whim of another. Organisers are past masters at shared decision-making and giving others a real stake in their own hard-won successes. Indeed the Gold Rule of organising is ‘never do for others what they can do for themselves.’ It’s pretty obvious that community members who are in control of their actions will feel a stronger motivation and higher self-esteem. In a collective environment such as organising, the atmosphere must enhance a sense of autonomy for action rather than a one-size-fits-all autocracy.

Occupy Wall Street Group Discussion 2011 Shankbone by David Shankbone CC FlickrSharing the decision

A third key to facing down our terror of change is discussion with peers. Participation in open and positive discussion about the change gives adults the opportunity to integrate the proposed change into their prior experience and to identify how the change will address real problems in their lives and offer a practical solution. Widely used in community education, such debates, brainstorms or deliberations need a facilitator and some effective ground rules around trust and mutual respect but everyone needs to feel free to speak their mind and the group needs to be able to make an autonomous decision. Again this is the everyday work of organising but plays a critical part in countering the natural tendency to caution when we are faced with change.

Reshaping expectations of change

Change is difficult for everyone. We all want to know that it’s going to be fun and succeed and we will gain friends and influence people. We want to be sure that our dignity will remain in tact and will we enhanced by looking good to our neighbours and friends. Sadly the reality is that change sometimes does not deliver these goods. And we have all learnt to be cautious with change as a result. Staying with the old methods will of course only deliver the same results but the risk of trying a new way is just too great. Whole communities have been told that their way of doing things is wrong, inadequate or damaging, so no surprise when a large proportion of these communities have learnt to stay put, to keep out of the way and not try anything new for fear of condemnation and ridicule. Organisers work to reshape those expectations, often in small ways at first but offering a new path to self-efficacy and greater self-esteem. And such a change in direction can be truly transformative.

Next time: In the end, change happens because we are invited to join in. Who makes the invitation is critical and can make or break the chance for change.


Les Robinson (2012) Changeology: How to Enable groups, communities and societies to do things they’ve never done before Greenbooks An excellent introduction to social marketing, tackling some of the key issues head on and offering evidence-rich strategies to improve your organising.

Albert Bandura (1977)  “Self-efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change” in Psychological Review Vol. 84, No. 2, 191-215 Available from

Smith, M. K. (2001) ‘Kurt Lewin, groups, experiential learning and action research’, the encyclopedia of informal education,

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4 Responses to Making change safe and sure

  1. Sue Christoforou says:

    Another excellent post. Thank you Mark.

  2. Yes, as Sue Christoforou says, excellent post.
    “Our job is to help expand their comfort zone so that change becomes possible.”
    I always think of Lev Vygotsky and his notion of “scaffolding”. Will keep reading, this is good stuff that you are writing!

  3. Mark Parker says:

    Thanks Dwight! I don’t know the work of Vygotsky but I see how “scaffolding” might be at work in collective endeavours.

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