The Fear of Change in Business (and How to Overcome It)

6 Steps to Influence a Positive Approach to Change

The fear of change in business can have disastrous effects, with numerous symptoms all disruptive to your business. It can cause your best people to panic and jump ship. It can cause disengagement, confusion, and demotivation. 

At the extreme, fear of change can cause a business to collapse (as in the case of Eastman Kodak’s dramatic failure, after its catastrophic culture of ‘why fix something that isn’t broken’ led it to business bankruptcy as competitors crushed it in the digital photography revolution).

What causes such disastrous fear of change, and how can you overcome it?

The nature of fear of change

People are naturally fearful of the unknown. It’s why we become nervous of entering darkened rooms. Our imaginations run wild, and we conjure up all manner of outcomes. Rarely are any exciting or encouraging. We don’t know what to expect, and so we tread carefully, or not at all.

When change takes place in a business, often it is like asking people to step into a darkened room. They lose control of their lives at work. Their routine disappears. Their days become unpredictable. Your people’s futures become uncertain, and they enter panic mode.

The bigger the change, the more uncertain your employees’ lives become. Changes in management, in ownership, company reorganizations, and increased automation or digitization can cause fear of loss of jobs – perhaps the ultimate fear of change in the workplace.

Left unchecked, the fear of change will develop into a wall of resistance to change that destroys the change project before it has even started.

Fear of change is cultural and led from the top

People’s fear of change may be natural, but in business it is also cultural. You only need to consider the innovative and experimental nature of startups and compare with the strategies employed by mature businesses to see this in action.

A startup company has little to fear. It is breaking new ground almost daily. It takes risks, fails fast, and learns quickly. As its products and services become mainstream and profits start to flow, its business leaders become more hesitant to takes risks. The rewards are great, constant, and consistent. The culture has shifted from being risk-takers to risk-avoiders. 

This culture permeates through the organization. Middle managers become fearful of taking risks that lead to canceled bonuses. Employees become fearful of making mistakes that cause the wrath of their managers. Change is seen as the biggest risk of all, for all.

Breaking the fear of change culture

To shift away from this cultural fear, leaders and managers must help their people navigate change positively. Here are six steps to do so.

Step #1: Explain the need for change

The first step is to explain the need for change. Create a narrative with which your people will engage, linking the change to future success:

  • Make the narrative easy to understand and memorable

  • Don’t shy away from discomfort – honesty is key

  • Be genuine

Step #2: Discuss people’s fears with honesty

Allow people to openly discuss their fears, and tackle each one that is voiced. Let people know that they are not alone, and show your own vulnerability. Yes, there are no certainties – except the certainty that if your business does not change it will not have a good future.

Step#3: Provide individual support 

Change affects people in different ways. By this stage, there will be some employees who are excited by the challenges ahead. Others will still be fearful, especially if the change means letting some people go.

Help people to accept and discuss their fears in one-to-one meetings. During these, reiterate the positive aspects of the change project and help the employee to see how they fit in now and in the future. Praise them for their contribution and give positive feedback.

Step #4: Engage employees in their own destiny

People do not destroy what they create. Good leadership involves people in the process of change. Encourage your people to design their own work practices to improve performance. Regularly, ask for views and opinions – listen to them and act upon them.

If mistakes are made, or things don’t quite work out as expected, don’t punish. Instead, use the experiences as lessons from which to learn. Encourage people to share their positive experiences openly, as they become advocates of the organizational change taking place.

Step #5: Be realistic about the effects of change

“This new system was going to make our lives easier. Instead, all I can see is that we’re working twice as hard and twice as many hours.”

If you hear this type of comment, it is usually shortly after the process of change has started. It is always because of poor communication.

While you onboard people by getting their buy-in to the longer-term positives of change, you must not neglect the short-term effects of your change project. For example, there may be a need to dual run, testing the accuracy of a new systems against the old way of doing things.

It may also be necessary to take steps back, recalibrate, and evolve the design of change as you discover more about how the change is affecting the business, processes, and people. Ensure your people understand that this is part of the process – and keep them informed and involved.

Step #6: Communicate constantly

Don’t leave your people in the dark. Illuminate the route forward with constant, consistent, and intentional communication. Manage communication in the omnichannel world by not only utilizing many communication channels (email, team meetings, website, one-to-ones, intranet, etc.), but also by designing your communication to be understood by all your people.

You can’t control fear of change in business – but you can overcome it

Perhaps the biggest constraint to overcoming fear of change in business is the misperception that it can be controlled. Fear is a natural human trait, and is difficult, if not impossible, to control. This doesn’t mean you cannot overcome it, though.

By taking the steps we have described here, you can influence how your people behave when faced with change that scares them. For many organizations, this requires a cultural shift – not only in how they think about change, but how they manage it. 

Your challenge is to lead change by influencing acceptance and excitement. Make the uncertain a little more certain by engaging your people in the change process, being honest about the challenges ahead, supporting them throughout, and helping them shape a brighter future.

Are you ready to lead through change? Complete a free leadership self-assessment to discover any development needs you may have and learn more about the Leadership Circle™.

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