It has been said many times that the only constant is change itself. Oddly enough, many, if not most people, struggle with it. That’s because people are drawn towards consistency (Mounsher, 2017). Yet, one of the hallmarks of effective leadership is the ability to overcome the sometimes overwhelming challenges regarding change (Mullins, 2019). This is probably one of the many reasons why REAL leadership is both so rare and so valued. Leaders need to understand what they are up against if they want to join the ranks of those capable of overcoming such fears and helping others achieve the change they desire. In my opinion, and my experience, this can happen in four necessary strategic steps.
Step 1: Understand WHAT Change Really Is
For our purposes here, it helps to think of change as more than a shift in the external situation. While some might argue this point, I think of change as a transition. While the two words are different by definition, that’s really what we are talking about. Change means that you are making something different or that things are becoming different (Oxford, 2019). However, I would venture to say that most are aware of the phenomenon known as “Cause and Effect.” I would also suggest that most understand that once a change occurs, there are effects that are often unforeseen. This unforeseen element fosters fear. Leaders must appreciate this dynamic and seek to get ahead of that fear before a change is initiated because it’s likely not the change itself causing the problem; it’s the transition and the “what then.”
Step 2: Understand Why Most Struggle with Change
What will happen to me? What will that mean for my family? What will happen to my work-load? What if I get fired? What if I get promoted? Am I really ready for the change? Am I up for the challenge? What if I fail?
These are just a few of the infinite questions that might run through the minds of those facing a potential change. However, a leadership professional must understand three things regarding such questions.
- Questions are asked when something is unknown.
- Whether they vocalize it or not, everyone is going to have at least some questions regarding the change.
- Most of the questions asked will revolve around a common theme.
Step 3: Understand the TRUTH of “The Unknown”
The future is ultimately unknown. Uncertainty refers to situations involving imperfect or obscure information, and fear (to a high degree) is associated with uncertainty. So we must appreciate the truth of the unknown which is that any potential change can be scary when people cannot anticipate the future. Essentially, the unknown equates to fear. It has been called a “fundamental fear” that has a direct impact on the body and mind (Carleton, 2016). In fact, several anxiety disorders have been directly linked to a fear of the unknown (University of Illinois at Chicago, 2016). We don’t want to do this to our people.
Whether we are talking about “Anticipatory anxiety”, which is what happens when people experience increased anxiety about what they think will happen in the future, or “Agnostophobia”, which is an all-out fear of the unknown, we must understand that as a species, we are programmed with psychological, physiological, and behavioral induced responses to handle threats to our well-being or survival (Steimer, 2002). This is true whether the risk is actual or potential. Understanding that these reactions are programmed is critical for the success of leaders attempting to overcome them. This is because we can then anticipate resistance, protectionist behaviors, or even avoidance.
Step 4: Understanding how to Overcome
Being able to anticipate fear gives us a strategic advantage regarding how to mitigate it. We can preempt fear by addressing what causes it before it becomes a problem. Fears and anxieties are combated with experience and information. This is because our attitudes, thoughts, and beliefs change through such exposures. Examples of this could be our eventual ease with dark rooms or even our ability to drive an automobile.
On the other hand, cognitive dissonance is when someone has inconsistent attitudes, thoughts, or beliefs (Oxford, 2019). We should know that studies have confirmed that cognitive dissonance may be partially responsible for an increase in risk perception when people are afraid (Cain, 2012). This too demonstrates our responsibility to provide experience and as much information as we can to properly frame the thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes of our people regarding a change. Of course, this requires a better understanding of each.
Attitudes – An attitude is simply a settled way of thinking or feeling about someone or something (Oxford, 2019). This settled way often turns into overt favor of that way due to normalcy. This is a form of bias, and this bias is another program that we must contend with. We should appreciate that this “program” helps us make quicker decisions but that it also tends to cause us to underestimate the potential negatives about not changing (Psychology Today, n.d.; Normalcy-bias, n.d.). Furthermore, change and innovation often unsettles current ways of thinking and threatens this bias. This attack essentially creates uncertainty, which often translates into resistance or avoidance because we want to protect what is familiar. However, if we can alter a belief, behavior or even a bias regarding a change or its outcome, we have a better opportunity to overcome the fear. When we do, we are more likely to achieve success regarding such initiatives.
Thoughts – Leaders must provide the information necessary to guide the thought process. Regarding change, leaders must explain the change as best we can and answer any questions that might arise with as much detail as required or possible. This helps make the reason for the change known, and it ultimately helps make the unknown regarding that change less daunting. To do this, leaders must first share or explain what will actually change in that process and what the results are expected to be. That’s simple enough, but there is a second part often missed by leaders, and this part is arguably the most crucial part. I contend that the leader must also share or explain what will NOT change because doing so will help alleviate particular anxieties regarding the outcomes of the proposed change.
Belief – Leaders must understand that by sharing the information necessary to overcome the fear, they are also helping to build confidence in, and the support needed for that change. Sharing information will actually help the team transition quicker, reduce resistance and open the door for potential modifications that might be necessary during any unforeseen setbacks.
Trust – One thing that too many leaders fail to do is establish real trust. However, developing and fostering trust with workers provides the leader with a strategic opportunity. Of course, in my opinion, the best way to establish and foster trust is to be open and honest and to share information. Basically, leaders need to keep their people informed.
Now we have pretty much come full-circle. During times of uncertainty, people will often turn to and rely upon the familiar and those they trust. It behooves a leader to be this person. Trust, from a leadership perspective, provides said leader with the opportunity to gain and utilize the benefit of the doubt. Meaning that while a leader may not be able to overcome or quell all of the fears associated with a proposed change, trust allows a greater opportunity for followers to go along with the change in spite of any anxiety they might have. This is because they appreciate that the leader knows what they are doing, they believe that the leader has tried to keep them informed and reassure them that things are going to be alright, and they believe that the leader has the best interests of his or her people in mind.
Achieving successful change requires so much more than merely spouting off commands and expecting your people to follow. Sure, some workers will go along with that tactic for a while, but reluctance, resistance, and even abandonment are all things that a leader is begging for when they do not approach change both strategically and mindfully. Information is king. When initiating a change, tell you people what will change, tell your people what will not change, and keep your people informed. This will help overcome fear, build trust and foster belief and commitment to the change itself. Match this with something such as Validation Exchange, and your odds for success are greatly increased.
In the near future, I will write about some step-by-step actions that can be taken to help in the change process. Stay tuned!
Cain, T. R. (2012). Fear bias: the impact of incidental fear on explicit and implicit risk perception (dissertation).
Carleton, R. N. (2016). Fear of the unknown: One fear to rule them all? Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 41, 5–21. doi: 10.1016/j.janxdis.2016.03.011
Mounsher, C. (2017, October 1). Why do we struggle with change? Retrieved from https://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/memberarticles/why-do-we-struggle-with-change
Mullins, G. (2019). Online Discussion Board. Williamsburg.
Normalcy-bias. (n.d.). In YourDictionary. Retrieved from https://www.yourdictionary.com/normalcy-bias
Oxford. (2019). Change: Definition of Change by Lexico. Retrieved from https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/change.
Oxford. (2019). Cognitive Dissonance: Definition of Cognitive Dissonance by Lexico. Retrieved from https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/cognitive_dissonance.
Oxford. (2019). Attitude: Definition of Attitude by Lexico. Retrieved from https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/attitude.
Psychology Today. (n.d.). Bias. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/bias.
Steimer T. (2002). The biology of fear- and anxiety-related behaviors. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 4(3), 231–249.
University of Illinois at Chicago. (2016, November 18). Fear of the unknown common to many anxiety disorders. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 24, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/11/161118131510.htm