Rocking the Boat: 4 Traits of Wave Makers

If you grew up being told not to make waves, you might reconsider. Why should you make waves in your team or organization? Easy: to bring about change that builds momentum, that introduces improvements and opportunities that would otherwise be missed in 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 changing 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 change-makers, including a Major League Baseball manager,  a young entrepreneur, a CEO, a community service leader, a recent graduate and more.  I found common threads, or underlying themes, 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. Wave Makers aren’t superhuman—but I saw thoughts, actions and behaviors that enabled all of them to start a change, regardless of the situation, scope and scale.

Are you a Wave Maker? Here are four habits of people who help bring change and how you can implement them today:

1. Ask “What’s in it for us?”—not “What’s in it for me?”

Wave Makers place more importance on reaching the goal and the anticipated impact, than on personal recognition. They really 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, the 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. Wave Makers 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. Persist while adapting to new information.

Wave Makers 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 the goal but 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, which allows you to realize your goal without getting distracted in future details.

3. Never stop learning—even in unlikely situations.

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

As such, wave-makers are comfortable with ambiguity. With a bias for action and the instinct to seek expert advice, they can move forward with a plan that includes unknowns.

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

4. Engage in positive collaboration based on authenticity and trust.

Wave Makers 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 engage others with your mission and help connect others on their missions.

Making waves is essential for changing your work, your community and your life. 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?




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

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