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Friday, March 19, 2010

Where is the fear?

@hnauheimer recommended a discussion in the Linked-In Organizational Change Practitioners group. Rauf Aslam Butt had asked why people FEAR to change, and this prompted a number of responses about resistance to change being caused by anxiety, ego, dislike of effort, fear of the unknown, and so on.

I thought it was interesting that we often describe other people as fearful, anxious, reactive, and so on, but never ourselves. WE are rational and THEY are emotional.

Sometimes resistance to change is a perfectly rational response to a flawed or ill-conceived initiative, as my friend Linda Levine pointed out many years ago. (See my wikipage on resistance.) Many change programmes in large organizations are not properly thought through, and many large organizations are trying to run several incompatible change programmes at the same time. As Christina Buchanan said in the discussion, we should all fear badly-planned change.

The second good reason to fear change is that the change may get half-way through and then run out of money or trust. (People losing faith when the change gets to that inevitable dip in the middle.) Or there'll suddenly be a new person at the top with a different agenda.

People learn to be apprehensive about change because of accurate observation of what has happened in their organizations and elsewhere. Art Kleiner suggests that "resistance to change occurs not because people fear change, but because they fear the consequences of contradicting the perceived priorities of the core group" (Strategy+Business, April 2010). Rather than complain about "fear", maybe change practitioners should look at addressing the causes of fear. (Perhaps this was the purpose of Rauf's original question.)

When change agents perceive ordinary busy people as fearful or ego-driven, simply because they don't leap with enthusiasm and energy for every half-baked scheme that is put to them, or because they ask awkward questions, maybe there's a certain amount of projection involved. (Psychologists call this transference.) It might seem that the people who are really most anxious about this change and its immediate prospects are the change agents themselves? But that's not the whole truth either.

Following my post Where is the intelligence?, we might ask a similar question about the true location of the fear. Even if the change agents authentically acknowledge their own feelings about the change, and deal with these feelings in a healthy and mature manner, we might wonder if the change agents really owned these feelings, or whether they were sensitively picking up the anxiety embedded in the organization itself. (Psychologists call this counter-transference.)

Unless we are completely emotionally cut off, our feelings inside organizations are strongly connected to the emotional state of the organization as a whole. This applies to feelings such as motivation as well as anxiety, and applies whether we are change agents ourselves or the recipients of change led by other people - often we may be both at the same time.

Change agents should also acknowledge their own contribution to the sum total of fear and anxiety in an organization. One common tactic for change is to create something called a compelling event - a story that attaches fear to the status quo, prodding the organization reluctantly into the future like a herd of cattle. As a consequence of this tactic, many organizations are almost paralysed by the accumulation of would-be compelling events.

But in my opinion, one of the biggest errors of a change agent is to focus attention on the people who are most vocal in expressing anxiety about a given initiative - treating them as if they were the instigators of these feelings rather than merely witnesses to them, sometimes even trying to exclude or avoid them as if this will cause the bad feelings to disappear. But anyone who brings their concerns out into the open is doing you a favour, because these concerns can then be addressed, and the change programme will be better for it. It is the silent ones you really have to worry about.

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