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Moving Past a Fear of Change

Dilbert cartoon describing how to overcome a fear of change
Credit: Scott Adams

What does the fear of change look like?

Fear of change is a common trait of poor personal or team leadership. Change is inevitable, so mastering change management is a critical skill to acquire!

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” 

Albert Einstein

Let’s start by considering why some individuals fear change, even when that fear proves irrational over time. Imagine that Deborah starts a software technology company, she’s developed a market-leading solution that allows her customers to comply with multi-standard sustainability reporting. The product is fresh and exciting, and her customers love it! As time passes, Deborah realizes the tool needs changing – internally it is becoming clunky and unwieldy – but customers don’t feel those effects as her team manually patch things. Deborah dares not to make changes for fear of something going wrong and her customers being unhappy. She is afraid to find her company with the worst of both worlds: an old sustainability reporting system no longer functioning and a new one not yet online.

What causes the fear of change?

Our fear is not really with the change, it is with worry that we will go backward and regress. When we quit a well-paid job to start a new business, we know that owning our own business will mean more free-time (balance) and more disposable income. We must prepare for one step back before we take two forward, one where we initially make less money and have less free time than we did at our previous job. Our greatest fear is that we end up with the worst of both worlds; no job and no business (that is the regressive step).

So what do we do? We look for an incremental change model that jumps right over the backward step risk as an overall risk mitigation strategy. Great idea, but it doesn’t work in practice. It is like expecting to perfect your buoyancy as a diver without bobbing up and down before you stabilize and get better. Taking a step backward in order to take two forwards is a critical element in change. It tells us that change is more revolutionary rather than evolutionary.

Interrupting the fear of change

Now we understand the root cause, it naturally raises the question of how do we fix it within ourselves?

Focusing on the people side of change

  • Empathy: Put yourself in the shoes of others by recognizing and openly admitting that change risks are real. Recognizing and accepting change is the first step towards managing it. If your big idea goes sideways, the price may be paid by others, so empathy is important.
  • Consensus: Thankfully the days of command-and-control leadership are, for the most part, long gone! Change management projects, today, recognize the importance of building a grassroots consensus rather than a top-down “order”. When we are involved in the change, we’ll better understand the rationale and fear melts away.
  • Get buy-in: Good change programs consider and manage concerns raised, potential risks, and possible unintended consequences. For instance, consider possible behavioural changes after the introduction of a new sales compensation program. Consider the golden rule: even if you personally dislike something in the system (or process), remain flexible. That is because others will want to work with you and support the change (given your can-do attitude). Rarely will anyone rush to our side or support us if we are raging against change (and by extension the company “machine”).
  • Communicate: Establish a clear and consistent reporting process before the change initiative starts. This is essential to provide all stakeholders, not only regular updates but more importantly with positive feedback to help stay the course when things get bumpy. Keeping communication timely supports people during the chaotic phase real change inevitably goes through.

Measuring change success

  • De-risk: Well-run change projects are piloted in a small or manageable part of the company, just in case something goes awry but also because it is a more controlled and identifiable outcome. Like sailing, tack as needed until you get the change right. It will inspire others to do the same because success breeds success. These types of risk mitigated change initiatives soon catch the attention of management. This in turn increases our value and trust within the organization. Trusted employees generally emerge from change even stronger than before.
  • Measure outcomes: Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard embedded the philosophy of “what gets measured, gets done” in the HP Way playbook back in 1939. The idea remains embedded in most things from performance management to change management. No matter how good an idea is, management needs to see how it aligns with the company’s mission and objectives, and they do so with concrete data. Remember that data can be qualitative as well as quantitative.

Applying the techniques in practice

If you happen to find yourself in an organizational culture that is change-resistant, save your energy and try this exercise. Research an area where small changes could improve the process (or system) for stakeholders. Consider possible objections and develop a contingency plan for things that could go wrong. Establish a testing mechanism and establish key success factors (your measurement criteria). Build consensus by sharing the plan with peers and other stakeholders. By preparing, mitigating risks, securing buy-in, testing, and communicating outcomes, you will discover that igniting change is easier than you might imagine.

The bottom line: change is here to stay so we need to learn how to overcome our fear and resistance to it.

“Change is life, the new, constant reality of any workplace. And if it’s not, it ought to be, because the riskiest thing any businesses can do in the new, uncertain world order, is to not change.”

Mike Kerr

Knowing more about managing through the fear of change, how would you now advise Deborah to tackle her situation?

Your turn

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