What could be more commendable than to devote one’s life to social change? What could be nobler than to devote one’s time and resources to the goal of making the world a better place? When it comes to social evolution, American society has come a long way since its inception. Nevertheless, entrenched social problems like hunger, poverty, and homelessness still plague our nation, and more work awaits us on these and other issues like them.
But the ironic thing about our culture is that, while almost every American agrees that further progress is needed on these issues, these same people instinctively oppose most of the changes that they say we need. And Americans do this because we seem to be subconsciously preprogrammed to want to change things that are unjust or ineffective… as long as we don’t have to change anything while we are working to change everything.
Just think about it! The idea of change seems almost romantic to the modern-day American. After all, our technology changes every day, and most of these changes are good ones. Medical research produces new medications every day and new treatments, as well, and it is obvious that these changes are making our world better. Scientists are making new discoveries just as rapidly. And due to advances in artificial intelligence, automobiles are evolving into machines that can basically drive and park themselves.
So change is not a negative concept for most Americans. In fact, the vast majority of people living in the United States would readily admit that change has made their lives better. However, when it comes to social change, that kind of attitude seems to vanish in the wind. While we have learned to place a lifetime of knowledge on a metal chip the size of a thumbnail, we haven’t moved the needle a single inch on poverty since we realized it was a nationwide problem in 1964.
When it comes to social innovation, therefore, things move slowly in America because people don’t tend to embrace social change quite as easily as they embrace other types of change. And that is why your role as a change agent or social disruptor could be so important in today’s world. But if you can envision yourself as a potential leader in the effort to solve deeply entrenched social problems, you need to be aware of the following three principles of social change that could make your work intolerable unless you can grasp them.
While people embrace change on a technological level, they prefer the status quo when it comes to their personal lives.
Pushing for social change can often be like pushing against a brick wall. Not at first, of course, because everybody will agree with you that big changes are needed in our society. And unlike most ideas, the idea of social change will be applauded by both sides of the political aisle, because everybody concurs that we need to eliminate poverty, to feed hungry people, to create affordable housing for the homeless, and to reduce gun violence. But the devil is in the details, as they say. And the pushback is in the details, too, because everybody wants change, but hardly anybody wants the systems and structures and familiarities of their lives to be modified in any way.
Don’t believe me? Well, try it and see for yourself. Just randomly choose a large or midsized city in America, then get in your car and drive there. That city will have the same types of social problems that you would find in any other American city of a comparable size. And there will be somebody in that city who is either officially or unofficially in charge of dealing with each of those problems. In fact, that person and others within the city will have a long track record of talking and meeting and planning and strategizing in order to deal with that specific problem. And more than likely, the people who have been strategizing to deal with the problem will also have a track record of raising money—either from local government or from charitable contributors—to help them do something to make the problem better.
But when somebody finally rises up to declare that the time for talk is over and the time for action has arrived, the resistance will be swift and powerful, because, while people love to make plans and raise money and while people love to keep themselves busy doing something that they consider worthy of their time, almost nobody will take the risks associated with challenging the status quo to actually move the needle forward in the effort to permanently fix the problem.
Why? Because, if the problem were solved, lots of people in government and the nonprofit world would lose their jobs! If the problem were solved, all the little groups and organizations and committees and task forces that help a few folks here and there would suddenly be put out of business. So people claim to want to solve the problems that plague their communities. In reality, however, their actions don’t match their words. “What we’re doing right now is just fine,” they say. “Besides, who put you in charge?”
In the business world, we understand action. If there’s a problem, you quantify that problem through statistics and financial data. Then you find a solution, and then you implement the solution. Problem solved! But not in the world of government or the world of charity! In those worlds, many of the top leaders are convinced that the problems they address are problems that don’t really have solutions.
But I couldn’t disagree more. All social problems have solutions. Unfortunately, most community leaders don’t fully understand the problems they are tackling, and many of them don’t really want to do the work or take the risks that are required to solve the problem permanently. And that is why the social disruptor will have an uphill battle in his or her journey toward meaningful change. People want change when it comes to technology, medicine, science, and business. But people don’t really want change when it comes to social injustice.
To slow the process of change, people subconsciously place obstacles between social problems and the best solutions to those problems.
Not everybody! Some people really do want meaningful change in the world, and these sincere people are willing to tolerate some inconveniences to achieve it. But most people don’t want to move from the planning stage to the action stage when it comes to social transformation. It’s just human nature!
To solve any social problem, a lot of people would have to be willing to come together. They would have to come together to formulate a strategy that serves the interests of each stakeholder in the community. So the people involved in change would have to be willing to listen to each other and to compromise. Then they would have to be willing to yield, because the best solution to a problem may not be any one person’s favorite solution. In addition, everyone involved in the process would have to be accountable to the other stakeholders in the effort, because expenditures would have to be weighed against results and hard data would have to be utilized to determine which strategies are effective and which are not.
So how many people do you know who would give up their own little “kingdoms” in order to cooperate with others, compromise with others, yield to others, and be accountable to others for the money they spend and the results that they produce? Not many, I assume. And my personal experience confirms this assumption. Be ready, therefore, because the work of social change is not about keeping the peace and it’s not about building popularity. It’s not about pleasing everybody, and it’s not about approval or public thanks. The work of social change is knowing where things stand, where those things need to go, and what must be moved or torn down to make those adjustments possible. The work of social change is knowing how to identify those systems, structures, beliefs, and mindsets that are making it impossible to solve a particular problem in a community, and it is daring to pick up an axe and a blowtorch to remove those impediments, even if it makes some people angry.
While the social disruptor must drive change against all opposition, there is an appropriate “speed” to change.
No social problem will ever solve itself. Somebody has to lead the charge to change any unjust situation. And the person who leads the charge will face a lot of opposition, often from the people who should be his closest allies in the fight. But in spite of the fact that change must be pushed forward with force and with passion, the successful change agent understands that social change, in order to “stick,” must be implemented gradually and incrementally and at a pace that a community can tolerate. You don’t want to kill the patient in the process of trying to heal the patient.
Dentistry can provide us with a vivid illustration of what I am trying to say here. An orthodontist doesn’t use a hatchet and a chain saw to straighten crooked teeth. And an orthodontist doesn’t straighten crooked teeth in a single day. I imagine that an orthodontist could straighten a mouthful of teeth in one day if he really wanted to, but the patient would probably die from the pain and the teeth would probably go back to their original positions as soon as the patient’s body arrived at the morgue.
So to be successful in his efforts, an orthodontist uses braces to gradually change the direction that his patient’s teeth are growing. The orthodontist applies pressure and creates only tolerable levels of pain to make the roots of the teeth turn and start growing in the direction they should have grown naturally. And every once in a while, the orthodontist adjusts that pressure by tightening the braces a little more. But he does this gradually over time, not all at once. And the results are usually permanent.
This is the way a social disruptor should approach the challenges of social change. Realizing that people—even the most liberal of people—are instinctively protective of their own turf and subconsciously opposed to any disruption to the familiar structures of their lives, he or she will introduce change in small, bite-sized pieces so the pain can be tolerated and the roots can have time to adjust. Change that is forced upon a community or a culture too rapidly can be as unhealthy as a weight-loss program that is too dramatic. The best approach to weight loss is an approach that is steady and systematic with just the right balance of success and sacrifice. And social change is no different.
So there is definitely a “process” to social change, an incremental process that leads to lasting results. Social change will always be a little painful, so the good social “surgeon” must never shy away from those battles that need to be fought. But the good social “surgeon” must also make certain that the pain is tolerable and that the patient can adjust to the pressure. After all, smart change agents will want to solve the social maladies that they address, not scorch the earth in the process. Tact (the skill of telling people that they are wrong and the timing that makes them happy to admit it) is essential in the work of social change.
If you want to see significant change in your society, become a social disruptor. At the same time, however, take up that role with your eyes wide open. Know that the realities of human psychology are opposed to your success. Know that the realities of sociology are opposed to your success. And know that you will have to patiently learn and apply the proven dynamics of social change if you intend to overcome these obstacles and succeed in your efforts. Otherwise, you might just become a cynical old grouch in your old age.
Fortunately, we live in a culture that can tolerate change if we implement change properly and with wisdom. So take up the challenge. We need some more audacious social advocates. But never forget that the journey to success for any social disruptor can be difficult indeed as that person confronts the typical human mindset of wanting to change the world as long as we as individuals don’t have to change our own thinking, our own behavior, or ourselves.