When we seek to bring positive change to an organization or community, the first step is demonstrating though our own actions the behavior we want to see, rather than telling other people how to be. After “show don’t tell,” the second step is to identify and work with the willing.

Every time Jonathan Rozenblit and I present our Practicing Leadership Today session, we are asked some version of “…but how do I get others to act the way I want them to act?”

Our answer:

First, show don’t tell.

Second, work with the willing.

Show don’t tell

Fiction writers “show don’t tell” to create believable worlds. Showing a character’s inner perspective via their actions (rather that simply stating what they are thinking) results in a more credible “world.”

Creating credible change in the real world can work like that too.

When we show our inner perspectives via action rather than telling others the “right” way to think, we are showing what’s possible. We are modeling an alternative to the status quo. When we do this (rather than tell this), we create a bubble of credible possibility around us.

This bubble doesn’t even have to be consciously perceived by those around us for it to be effective. Humans are mimetic creatures. We evolved to learn through observation. When difference doesn’t signal threat, it grabs our attention and tweaks our curiosity. It acts as a priming dose¹, making us more likely to want to try it ourselves.

Be that change you want to see, and then gather evidence for how others around you begin, likewise, to show that change.

I can already hear the objections! “Wait, how does that work for the people who are least like us — the ones who need to hear us the most and yet who might even not notice the change in our behavior — or who see it and don’t care?”

Short answer: it doesn’t work at all.

And that’s totally OK: it doesn’t matter.

Why? The second critical piece to this successful approach to organizational change is to realize that our work as change agents is always with — and only with — the willing.

Work with the willing

The people who already, at least partially, see the world similarly to you are the most likely to see and respond, consciously and unconsciously, in positive ways, to the behavior changes you are showing.

JR and I invite our students to try this out: assume that there are people in your organization who, if they see someone acting how they feel, are considerably more likely to be drawn to that action.

Who gets curious when they see you act in this way new to them?

Watch for them.

When you spot them, connect with them and cheer them on as they, likewise, create their own circles of interested people around them. The more you can create a context that supports these early adopters, the more your influence will spread.

This method works at any level in an organization

As coaches, we invite people out of the trap of the limiting belief ² that to make organizational change you need to have substantial power in that organization (i.e. a job title that says you have power). We’ve found — and the most successful leaders we coach have found — that this isn’t so. The approach we have described in this article works at whatever level you are in your organization.

As your success takes you up the levels in that organization (if that’s what floats your boat), then you’ll bring that change with you. And, if the organization you are in right now doesn’t get the value of that, then there is another organization looking for those with a leadership practitioner’s mindset that does get it.

¹ “The psychology and neuroscience of curiosity”Celeste Kidd and Benjamin Y. Hayden. Neuron. 2015 Nov 4; 88(3): 449–460.

² “Limiting beliefs are those which constrain us in some way. Just by believing them, we do not think, do or say the things that they inhibit. And in doing so we impoverish our lives.”