FEAR OF CHANGE?
Fear of Change: Instinctive to human nature or a result of human intervention?
Change Management, change readiness, climate change, change of life, exchange, pocket change, grade change, change your mind, sex change, career change…. surrounded by change, we talk about it endlessly, wishing, dreaming, complaining. We look for upgrades, renovations, makeovers, promotions, transformations ... We even have expressions to articulate how we feel about change:
• “Plus que ça change, plus que ça reste le même. “ (The more it changes, the more it stays the same)
• “Change is as good as the rest.”
• “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
• “Be careful what you wish for”
• “Freedom 55”
• “Empty nest syndrome”
How we can then say that we instinctively fear change? Think about it. From the moment of conception, change dictates our lives. We are constantly changing every minute of every day.
For example, we learn to walk and discover that falling hurts. We learn to drink out of a cup and give up the bottle. We use the toilet and are free of diapers. We grow old and get reacquainted with the above. Talk about radical change!
We learn to read and discover a world outside of family and home. We go to school and then realize we are no longer the center of the universe. Are these significant changes in our early lives? You betcha!
As we grow older, we forget the excitement change brings. We become focused on the aches and pains of aging, more frightened and more skeptical of good changes like advances in technology. Talk with a teenager and listen to how much they crave change, to explore and experience all. Just can’t wait. Talk with an adult and listen to their fear of change with children leaving home. Being alone. Having to change their daily routines.
Yes, change is a part of our lives as certain as death and taxes. Change is what we can count on, day in and day out. Just when we think we have it sorted out, something changes again! Like most things, we have little control over it. That is what we fear: the lack of control, the unknown.
Nelson Mandela once said that
Change is not bad. It is people who make it so. In the political world, we describe Change as a revolution that will destroy everything in its path. And yet, there have been peaceful revolutions such as the ``Velvet Revolution” that split Czechoslovakia into the Slovak and Czech Republics.
Wars that started with a single gunshot killing thousands, ended by changing the world forever in some positive ways, like emancipating women and advancing technology. In nature, tidal waves and devastating earthquakes decimated lives in an instant yet, empathetic communities worldwide came together to help the victims. Just for the privilege of doing so.
During the most recent crises, we saw Change destroy the most skilled and talented leaders as they unsuccessfully attempted to save their organizations but we discovered some were not as ethical and competent as we had believed. Media report a series of social changes that could threaten traditional Canadian cultures and customs, such as diversity of religion, languages and dress. Aren't these changes ultimately to our advantage as a global partner?
How do we see Change in our organizations? How do we talk about Change? Do we create fear of Change through our language and our practices? Or do we suggest Change is an exciting way forward? In a study conducted by Queen’s School of Business, findings suggested the recession spawned employee behaviours such as “the Terminated, the Longers, the Fearful, and the Apocalyptical”. I would argue these behaviours have always been present in organizations just as are the “Engaged, the Delighted and the Indifferent”. (The Ottawa Citizen November 12, 2012, Section D page 1)
Labelling helps us cope with change. But how encouraging is it to be referred to as the fearful or the apocalyptical? Does that bring people together or does it marginalize them and create even more anxiety in the organization? The point is that the words we use when we talk about Change affects behaviours, feelings, and ultimately performance. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. If we focus on doom and gloom, guess what? That is how we will behave and how we will experience Change as an organization. That we can predict with certainty!
Conventional Change Management theory uses cold language. As a Canadian I should be better adapted, but sorry, the image of an ice cube melting and refreezing is something I find neither heartwarming nor optimistic.
There are kinder words to define Change. We can describe it as a positive force that brings peace to war-torn countries, warm breezes and flowers after a brutal winter, a considerate culture after a tyrannical leader, smiles following tears, birth after labour. We need to embrace Change into our workplace as a positive force because let’s face it, as long as people create organizations, change will show up. I suggest that change is instinctive to human nature but fear of change is a result of human intervention.
The Human Systems Dynamics Institute (HSDI) outlines a thought-provoking and optimistic approach to safeguarding individuals during times of change.
- First, ensure healthy workplaces where everyone interacts with each other respectfully.
- Emphasize the importance of what we share as a community: mission, vision, values; and yes, change but as well as, stability.
- Set expectations from the outset of what will change and how it will make a difference in our relationships with others and how to support each other in the ways that we each need.
- Encourage relationships throughout the process, including how the change makes us feel and what comes next.
1. Create a sense of urgency around the change:
Let’s talk about it. It’s coming so why pretend otherwise? Prepare. Do it now!
2. Pull together the guiding team:
Someone needs to champion this effort and everyone needs a chance to debrief, so find the team that will make a difference.
3. Develop the vision and strategy:
Leadership is key. Remember who we are and why we exist and what we are doing to forge the way forward. Don’t be afraid to lead or to find someone who will.
4. Communicate for understanding and buy-in:
Remember. Change is not what is scary. It is what people do not say about change or do not allow us to say about change that is.
5. Empower others to act:
Do not be afraid of creating unreasonable expectations. Most adult employees are accustomed to taking responsibility for their futures. They have kids and mortgages and bank accounts so let them decide what they need and when.
6. Produce short-term wins:
Offer opportunities to celebrate the small victories change can bring and to create positive outlooks amidst the chaos of changing environments.
7. Do not let up:
Do not give up even if it seems you alone are holding the torch. Work through your issues and keep focused on the end point.
8. Create the new organization:
Remind, express, share and celebrate the changes the new organization brings. Allow all employees to be a part of the transformation. It is their organization after all.
Keep in mind that changing organizations (grow, shrink, more hierarchical or less, new leadership, new ownership, more entrepreneurialism, more centralization) create change in culture. If you have been through these changes, you know what I mean.
Dr. Glenda Eoyang of the HSDI would argue that as leaders, consultants and HR practitioners, we should intervene to offer transparency of purpose, opportunities to consult, collaborate, and communicate, and openly and respectfully share information and reinforce what we believe in, what we value, and what we aspire towards. Clients I have worked with often felt unsure at the outset of how the change process might succeed, but by embracing the possibility of a positive outcome, they were not disappointed.
The late Michael Jackson in “Man in the Mirror”, wrote:
“if you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and then make that….
Just something you may want to consider the next time you talk about change.