Change Agent

The term change agent has been used generally to denote any person, activity, or experience that facilitates change. An alteration in both psychological and behavioral functioning is the expected result of the interplay between individual and organizational competencies, such as knowledge, skills, and awareness. The basis for measuring this change relates to movement along a continuum of Self-System awareness.

Originally, change agent was used to refer to leaders or facilitators of change induction groups, or T-groups (basic skills training groups). Early change induction groups in the early 1900s were utilized by only a few, isolated individuals. The focus of the early T-groups was varied and unstandardized, based on the specific focus of the facilitator’s goal for the population. In the first quarter of the century, no true effort was made to combine the philosophies of groups or group leaders.

World War II proved to be the catalyst for research on change agents. With the need to quickly modify the everyday living practices of people to meet the requirements of military systems, much emphasis was placed on the potential effects of group dynamics. The inefficiency and limited availability of psychiatric and psychological personnel precluded individual efforts of classification and remediation. Consequently, group therapy and the role of change agents became a noteworthy topic, and the notion of efficient psychological and behavioral change still drives most of the individual and group therapy today.

Self-System awareness in psychotherapy may be conceptualized best by Julian B. Rotter’s notion of internal versus external locus of control and how it produces change or motivates individuals to change. As noted earlier, the term change agent may refer to any persons, activities, or experiences. Change produced at the Self (internal locus of control) end of the continuum concerns attitudes, beliefs, and thoughts—all of which are unobservable but often produce the most permanent and stable change. Change seen at the System (external locus of control) end is often quantifiable, or, at least, observable—however, not necessarily linked to authentic or lasting change. Change agents must focus on both behavioral and cognitive aspects when addressing individuals’ intrapersonal/interpersonal functioning.

Mental health clinicians serving as change agents look to enhance individuals’ self-regulation. Rather than place external pressures, forces, or consequences on behavior and affective expression, clinicians seek to assist individuals in satisfying, productive intrapersonal and interpersonal functioning. However, change agents must take precautions to avoid invalidation of the cultural experience of others or assessing the affect, behavior, and cognitions of others without consideration of sociocultural context.

Both the American Psychological Association and the American Counseling Association have addressed the need for facilitating change while considering the sociocultural contexts in their ethics codes. American Psychological Association Ethics Code Principle A concerning Beneficence and Nonmaleficence presumes that, because clinicians’ “scientific and professional judgments and actions may affect the lives of others, they are alert to and guard against personal, financial, social, organizational, or political factors that might lead to misuse of their influence.” Principle E speaks of Respect for People’s Rights and Dignity and expects that clinicians “are aware of and respect cultural, individual, and role differences, including those based on age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language, and socioeconomic status and consider these factors when working with members of such groups.” The American Counseling Association mentions its encouragement of clinicians to “actively attempt to understand the diverse cultural backgrounds of the clients they serve” in the Introduction to Section A: The Counseling Relationship.

Social scientists and clinicians are expected to take the lead in advocating for change in relation to the consideration of these factors in theory, research, and practice. The degree to which multicultural issues receive attention in the future will depend on the willingness and effectiveness of social scientists in modeling the change that is yet to come to fruition in larger society.


  1. American Counseling Association. (2005). ACA code of ethics. Alexandria, VA: Author.
  2. American Psychological Association. (2002). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. American Psychologist, 57, 1060-1073.

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