our thoughts

Personal Approaches to Change II : Emergent Change
17 February 2014

In the previous post, we looked at the characteristics of the linear model of change. This post describes an alternative approach that feels more intuitively like the real experience most people have of attempting to change aspects of themselves.


“There comes a time when we turn against the old ways of being . . . when we need to affirm and develop other, neglected sides of our being, and make new choices.” 

— Peter Reason and Judy Marshall


Emergent Change

This is where change happens in a more organic, spontaneous and unplanned way. The emergent approach is based on the assumption that a person is only one contributor to a complex, unknowable process. In the field of personal development, emergent change often occurs when an individual’s assumptions about themselves are challenged though feedback, disclosure and engaging in profound experiences.

Emergent change is often characterised by an individual gaining insights through a growing sense of acceptance and awareness about who they are being and what they doing moment by moment. These insights can lead to a fundamental transformation in how an individual perceives themselves which can leave them feeling liberated, freed up and with increased potency. The emergent change approach is often called the ‘paradoxical theory of change’ because it is based on the assumption that: “change occurs when you become what you are, not when you try to become what you are not”  (— modified from Beisser, 1970).

Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change, but takes place if one takes the time and effort to be fully invested in who they are at that point in time. This model relies on the individual focusing energy and attention on noticing without judging who they are in the moment and requires a significant level of patience. Emergent change is far more difficult to explain using a simple diagram and the concept is often described using metaphors:

The Art Restoration Metaphor

Imagine you are a work of art – a fine art painting perhaps. You have been left in a dark, dusty, damp attic and forgotten by your previous owner. One day, you are rediscovered and your new owner carefully and painstakingly brushes the dirt and detritus away from your surface, revealing the beauty of your real self.

This metaphor describes how we all develop a particular version of ourselves based on our life experiences and what we have come to believe is acceptable to others and useful for getting on in the world. Over time, this can begin to feel limited and constraining, either because we become aware that whole areas of our experience are split off, denied or rejected as unacceptable, or because the challenges we face require us to be more than we currently experience ourselves as being. The process of change is therefore about allowing more of our full sense of self to show up more of the time. As Clarkson (2004) suggests: “being yourself is the only thing you can be perfect at.” 

Characteristics of emergent change

Emergent change can be characterised in the following ways:

  • about being more of who you already are (being more present)
  • about accepting yourself without resorting to judgement
  • definition of change is about being more aware of yourself in the moment
  • change is viewed as both a spontaneous and iterative process
  • feedback is used to raise awareness about how others experience you

Many people (and organisations) find the emergent approach a difficult one to engage in either because they are unable to let go of their self judgements or because they are unable to direct their attention to the present moment. However, change can happen by simply noticing familiar patterns of thinking and acting and being willing to experiment with alternatives, even the opposite of what we normally do. This is not in order to get to a predetermined outcome (that would be linear) but simply to have an experience of difference and expansion and to notice how that affects us in the moment.

Creating Conditions for Safe Emergence

Some people may find that ‘showing up’ more fully in their organisation to be a risky venture. In order to encourage people to ‘safely’ emerge, we would suggest:

  • using reflective writing as a means of recording and reviewing your experiences of being more yourself;
  • considering the context in which you are planning to be more present – there are strong conforming forces in organisations which may work against your intentions;
  • noticing when you are feeling constrained and being curious about what that might tell you about your surroundings;
  • emergence works at many levels – for example, wearing different clothes can be as significant a change as being more honest with people (to read more about ‘small acts of significance’, see Tempered Radicals book referenced below

Further Resources

Tempered Radicals: How People Use Difference to Inspire Change at Work, D. Meyerson, HBS Press, 2001.

(Reference: This post was originally created by Jason Harrison and Simon Cavicchia in 2012 to support participants on a leadership development programme.)


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