Rocking the Boat: 4 Traits of Wave Makers

UPDATED: February 15, 2023
PUBLISHED: February 15, 2023
a team of changemakers collaborating on a project

If you grew up being told not to make waves, you might want to reconsider your stance on the matter and become a changemaker. 

Why should you make waves in your team or organization? Easy: to bring about change that builds momentum, that introduces improvements and opportunities otherwise missed by conforming to the status quo. Change makes our world better.

For two years, I researched and interviewed people who have started changes, from sharing food with the homeless to starting a new business and redefining how teams work together.

I asked trusted colleagues, “Who do you know that’s a Wave Maker?” With their recommendations, I came up with an eclectic and interesting mix of changemakers, including a Major League Baseball manager, a young entrepreneur, a CEO, a community service leader and a recent graduate. I found common threads in how these people think about change and then act upon it.

In my book Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life, I share how to start a wave, but I also define the DNA of a Wave Maker (aka a changemaker). Wave Makers aren’t biologically determined, but I nonetheless saw similar thoughts, actions and behaviors that enabled all of them to start a change, regardless of the situation, scope or scale.

4 habits of effective changemakers

So, are you a Wave Maker? Would you like to be? Here are four habits of people who help bring change and how you can implement them in your own life today:

1. A changemaker asks, ‘What’s in it for us?’—not, ‘What’s in it for me?’

Wave Makers place more importance on reaching their goal and its impact than on personal recognition. They truly believe their mission will benefit the greater good. They create momentum around an idea that reaches far beyond the self, all with the goal to make work, their community or the world better. This approach keeps motivation high even when setbacks or detours occur.

To implement change, make authentic relationships a top priority. Changemakers place a high priority on the meaningful and diverse connections needed to achieve their goals. Build valuable relationships that will help you learn, create strong networks and find meaning in your work.

2. They persist while adapting to new information.

Changemakers have a healthy balance of determination toward a goal and ability to adjust as they learn new information. Not deterred by setbacks, they are open to new ideas and insights. Wave Makers don’t give up on their goals—instead, they remain flexible on how to accomplish it.

To achieve this, believe in your idea and yourself. Grounded in their mission, Wave Makers are both passionate and resourceful. Adopt this healthy confidence, and allow yourself to realize your goal without getting distracted by future details.

3. A changemaker never stop learning—even in unlikely situations.

Wave Makers are always looking to enhance their knowledge and insights. They seek out experts, read, listen and embrace mentoring relationships. They are comfortable taking on new ideas because they are confident that they can learn what they need to know.

As such, Wave Makers aren’t dissuaded by ambiguity. With a bias for action and the instinct to seek expert advice, they can move forward with their plans even when those plans include unknowns.

To be a changemaker, adopt curiosity and be ready to explore. Wave Makers often ask “Why?” and “What if?” Make it your nature to find understanding and apply new ideas to your work.

4. They engage in positive collaboration based on authenticity and trust.

Changemakers look for connections and ways to work with others toward a shared goal. They know it is important to share their goals and translate the meaning and purpose of their change to ensure their idea’s survival. 

With this in mind, seek to not only engage others with your mission, but to help connect those who are on their own missions.

Making waves is essential for changing your work, your community and your life for the better. Rethink how you define a wave. It’s more than a disruption—it’s a positive force for good. And you can start the momentum.

So, do you have the DNA of a Wave Maker?

This article was published in June 2014 and has been updated. Photo by GaudiLab/Shutterstock

Patti Johnson is a career and workplace expert and the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and human resources consulting firm she founded in 2004. Previously, she was a senior executive at Accenture and has been recently featured as an expert in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times,NBC, Money Magazine and Working Mother. Patti is also an instructor for SMU Executive Education and a keynote speaker on “Leading Change.” Her first book, Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work & in Life, hit shelves in May 2014. Visit her website at