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Catalyzing Change from Within: A New Perspective on Insider Social Change Agents

Date:28 February 2024
Assistant Professor Katrin Heucher
Assistant Professor Katrin Heucher

In the face of societal and environmental challenges, organizations need to do more than just make symbolic gestures or resort to greenwashing. The real change-makers are often found within the organizations themselves. They are the insider social change agents. These individuals are driving change and have the potential to significantly impact societal transformations. However, their efforts need to extend beyond isolated wins within their organizations.

In a recent review in the Academy of Management Annals, Assistant Professor Katrin Heucher, along with a team of international co-authors, delves into how these individual efforts can aggregate and lead to broader, more impactful change.

Small wins can lead to big changes

During their research, the team uncovered that previous research has largely focused on the small, yet significant wins achieved by insider social change agents. These wins, while important, often remain insular, and confined within the boundaries of the organization. Heucher and colleagues argue that it’s time to shift our focus. There is a need to explore how these individual efforts can aggregate and catalyze positive social change on a larger scale.

The implications of this insight are far-reaching. If organizations can harness the power of insider social change agents effectively, they can drive meaningful change that extends beyond their own boundaries. This could lead to advancements in sustainability, social justice, and other critical societal issues.

For example, in one of the studies in the review, Rich DeJordy and colleagues found that in the mid-1990s, employee activists in Minneapolis–St. Paul, Minnesota, championed non-discrimination based on sexual orientation. They advocated for domestic partner benefits across 24 organizations and bridged multiple organizations. By learning from past efforts, borrowing approaches, avoiding stagnation, fostering solidarity, and expanding the movement domain, they successfully influenced change efforts beyond their own organizations.

Individuals as catalysts for societal change

According to Heucher and her team, the societal importance of this issue is immense. “As we grapple with global challenges like climate change and social inequality, the role of organizations in driving change is pivotal. Insider social change agents can be the catalysts for this change, influencing not just their organizations, but society as a whole. These agents extend social change efforts across all functions of the organization, from finance and human resources to innovation, marketing, and operations. They move beyond greenwashing and work towards integrating change into every aspect of the organization.”

Unpacking the role of insider social change agents

Previous literature on this topic is as diverse as it is rich. A multitude of terms are used to describe these agents, including activist, advocate, champion, internal reformer, and outsider within, each carrying its own nuances. This fragmentation has led to a lack of conceptual clarity needed to see patterns of actions and draw links from actions to sustained mobilization for grand challenges.

To understand how insider social change agents can catalyze organizational action that promotes positive social change, this review unifies this substantial but siloed body of work. Thereby, the review identifies several dimensions—persons, places, issues, activities, and outcomes—that present important insights as well as tensions and opportunities for future research. By addressing these dimensions, the authors develop a more integrative model for understanding the role of insider social change agents. This integration enables comparisons and insights across studies and highlights pressing issues for a future research agenda: These include taking a broader ecosystem perspective on “insider” efforts, examining whether and how small wins aggregate to bigger wins or diminish over time, and theorizing obstacles to and blockers of social change as robustly as social change agency.

The call to action: join the movement

Heucher explains: The review is more than just a study; it’s a call to action. It’s an invitation to managers, students, and scholars to join them in exploring the potential of insider social change agents. Together, we can catalyze the chain reactions needed for broader societal transformations.”

For more information: dr. Katrin Heucher – k.s.heucher


DeJordy, R., Scully, M., Ventresca, M. J., & Creed, W. E. D. 2020. Inhabited ecosystems: Propelling transformative social change between and through organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 65: 931–971. [HK1] 

Heucher, K., Alt, E., Soderstrom, S., Scully, M., & Glavas, A. (2024). Catalyzing Action on Social and Environmental Challenges: An Integrative Review of Insider Social Change Agents. Academy of Management Annals, 18(1), 295-347.