Fear of Change: warning potentially highly contagious

Aristotle is quoted as saying ‘we are what we repeatedly do’. In today’s world, we know that people are creatures of habit and we are loathe to depart from our usual routine – both across our personal and professional life. However, as the Moorhouse Barometer on Change highlighted, change has become the new constant for most organisations. As the scale and pace of change continues to grow, to enable us to cope with the pace of change we need to understand and unpick our human behaviours. If we can understand this better, this can help immunise our organisations against the fear of change, minimise resistance and help embed a culture of change across an organisation.

60-70% of change programmes fail. This is the common statistic shared amongst change practitioners, and yet we are inundated with frameworks, theories and tools to manage change effectively. Speak to the wearied Change Manager and they will tell you that it’s the ‘people’ aspect of change that is often the biggest barrier to overcome as opposed to process or implementation activities.  Fear of the unknown and a change to our perceived status quo can lead to significant resistance within organisations. It creates barriers to change that can be incredibly hard to overcome and for which no programme plan can fully prepare. 

So, what drives our fear of change? For employees, it can be any number of things: uncertainty as to what the future state holds for them, a sense of a loss of control, fear of an unstoppable wave of disruption reaching other ‘stable’ areas and feeling left in the dark from poor or no communication from the top.  An increasingly additional element is a lack of trust with senior leaders and facts being presented. 

The common thread is that the change is a ‘perceived threat’ and therefore triggers a biological reaction that our brain cannot always control. Our amygdala (the part of our brain that regulates our emotions) is the reason we are afraid of things outside our control. The amygdala can perceive threat in uncertainty or ambiguity, and if we perceive something as threatening or dangerous to us it will then control our emotional reaction.  Even before Aristotle, this instinct that was integral to our ancestor’s survival, a fear of predators and change to our immediate environment is the exact reason you are sitting here reading this right now. Whilst we don’t live in the wild anymore, changes to an organisation’s structure create the fear of potentially having to find a new office (cave) and struggling to provide (hunt) food for individuals and their families.

So, Change Practitioners find themselves fighting a biological instinct, deeply engrained in a desire for survival that’s kept our species alive for millions of years. And we think we can change it with a few powerpoint slides, a project plan and an action log? While it can be depressing to think that we are hardwired to fear change, there are three practical things we can do support acceptance and even an embracement of change. 

Firstly, provide or enable extraordinary leadership. In the modern age many of us don’t believe the rhetoric of leading figures– from Trump’s promise to build a wall to the impending doom of Brexit. We no longer take for granted and trust what we are told. Mitigate against this in your business by having extraordinary leadership, supporting and leading change from the most senior level in your business. Your leaders should be the pioneers for the change and paint the picture. Motivate others to follow the vision by inspiring and role modelling the change to come. 

Secondly, establish trust and create ownership within those teams affected by the change. Trust takes time to build and if those leading and managing the change hold pre-existing relationships with stakeholders, then it increases cooperation from teams. One way to ensure this is through the appointment of ‘Change Champions’, chosen because of their role and reputation amongst staff. They should be established members of the business, holding positive pre-existing relationships, and therefore hold credibility and authority. Further boost the impact change champions and sponsors in business will have by actively incentivising their support. This can be done through revised job descriptions, links to performance management and time given to support change activities. Have Change Champions been chosen because of their reputation or successful track record? If so, tell them! 

Thirdly, exercise empathy and emotional intelligence in your interactions with the business. Take time as an organisation to consider your hunter gatherers. What could they see as threatening in the change? Do you understand their fears and motivations? Have you taken the time to anticipate these in order to mitigate where possible? 

After analysing potential reactions of those affected by change, smart stakeholder engagement is key so that they are aware of the direction of travel throughout the change. Take a communications strategy to the next level by tailoring communications to the audience. They should include relevant key messages and be shared in a suitable and comfortable style for the recipient. When anticipating change, constant repetition and reassurance can seem unnecessary to those embedded in change teams, and yet it ensures a consistent and coherent message to the wider business. In our experience, it is important not to underestimate the value in providing the organisation with ample time for teams to explore and understand the future state, to avoid them feeling like the change was ‘done to them’.

By focusing on the softer skills outlined above, people’s resistance to the change will lower as their perceived threat of change diminishes. Weave this targeted people management approach with a robust change framework to provide the greatest chance of success in managing and adopting change across your organisation.  

To find out more about Moorhouse perspectives on Change Management read our Barometer on Change or get in touch directly to discuss further.

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Helen Richardson Principal