Change Management and Overcoming Fear in the Workplace

Fear is a big blocker to organizational change. In this article, we’ll explain the relationship between change management strategy & fear.

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    Fear is the biggest blocker to organizational change. Whether we’re talking new policies, technologies, or strategies, change tends to be “fear-based,” regardless of what you stand to gain.

    While some fear is inevitable, it shouldn’t prevent you from moving forward. If it does, your business will fall to more agile competitors. And, let’s face it, the threat of losing your business is a heck of a lot scarier than sending data to the cloud or letting AI lend a hand sometimes.

    Without a strong change management strategy in place, human nature will take over and sabotage the game-plan.

    In this article, we’ll explain the relationship between change management and fear. We’ll discuss where those fears come from and how to put workers at ease– and get them on board with the change.

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    ​Why do employees fear change in the workplace?

    Change is uncomfortable because we’re creatures of habit.

    Our brains are programmed to seek out safety and stability. This served us well when apex predators, starvation, and invading tribes were part of the average person’s day-to-day.

    Today, those instincts are responsible for fear of change in the workplace. Uncertainty represents a threat that, perhaps we’ll be replaced by robots or someone will “out” us as incompetent, which ultimately, threaten our ability to provide food and shelter for ourselves and our families.

    As explained in a 2013 Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper explains that this fear of change is triggered by a concept called “prediction error signals.” The idea is, change disrupts reinforcement learning processes—or, our ability to predict outcomes based on existing knowledge and experience.

    So, if someone is experiencing uncertainty about an unknown future threat, they’re unable to take steps to mitigate potential damage—or avoid it altogether. And, as a result, they experience an increase in fear and anxiety.

    change management strategy helps with fear

    Another reason employees fear change is that they worry they’ll lose income, status, and their job. Where fear of the unknown is often linked to conditions like general anxiety disorder, the fear of loss is tangible–and often grounded in reality. We’ve seen this story play out in the headlines, the movies, and likely, real life—time and time again.

    Finally, there’s fear of inadequacy. Here, people fear they’ll be exposed as incompetent. Others may learn they don’t have the knowledge or skills to meet new challenges. This particular fear is a real roadblock to change, as it often causes people to give up before training begins to avoid pain or embarrassment.

    Now that we’ve gone over the “why” behind fear of change, let’s take a look at some ways you can help employees face their fears and drive positive, sustained gains.

    Communicate the what, why, & how behind the change

    According to a recent Redhat report, people fear transformation initiatives as something that’s being done to them, not for them. In other words, workplace changes represent a force outside of their control–a potential threat.

    Employees won’t buy in unless you give them a compelling reason to care–and offer some assurance that their jobs are safe and that you’ll support them through the change–and beyond. As a starting point, you’ll want to make sure you’re prepared to answer the following questions–in detail before making any announcements:

    • How will X change impact Y process or Z workflow?
    • How will day-to-day work change for sales/marketing/IT/ etc.?
    • How much training/onboarding is required?
    • What kind of learning curve is to be expected?
    • Will specific roles become redundant?
    • Will any skills/tasks be automated? And if so, what will that mean for the humans who currently perform those tasks?
    • Will the org structure change? If so, who will employees report to? How will norms around communication and collaboration change?
    • How will new expectations be measured, enforced, and rewarded?
    • What do employees gain? (Be sure to address potential gains from all perspectives (front line workers, middle management, IT, leadership, etc.)
    • What new efficiencies will the change deliver?
    • What kind of professional development/upskilling opportunities will you offer?
    • What resources are available to help employees navigate the change?

    Once you’re able to answer those questions, you’ll need to figure out how to present those answers in an effective way. A few things to keep in mind:

    Tell your “change management story”

    According to Gartner, crafting a narrative around the proposed change is an effective way to get everyone on board. Presenting a problem/pain, a solution, an impact (classic change management strategy story arc)

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    Framing matters–a lot

    Crafting a uniform change narrative isn’t enough. You need to consider what motivates individual players and tell the story that speaks to the challenges and goals that matter to them.

    Note, that you don’t need to create a personalized “hero’s journey” for every member of every team.

    Rather, the focus should be on putting the change–and its potential impact–in context for each department/function. Finance and IT will have different goals than marketing and customer service, while C-suite leaders will have different goals than middle management and front line employees.

    Be honest

    According to an HBR article, change begins with acknowledging how difficult the work will be. That means performing at risk assessment–then sharing those findings with the team. No sugar-coating over hardships on the horizon.

    While business leaders might default to telling employees “everything will be fine,” that approach only creates a sense of distrust. Being upfront about the challenges your organization is up against gives employees the sense that you’re all in this together. As a result, workers will be more likely to embrace changes that help them prepare for the future.

    Really listen to your people

    Once you’ve decided how to present the proposed change, your next move is collecting feedback to inform the big-picture plan.

    A 2016 Deloitte piece on humanizing change explains that to overcome fear-based resistance, leaders must first develop a deep understanding of what motivates individual employees.

    That means looking beyond obvious performance metrics and cash rewards and considering the irrationality of human behavior.

    As Adam Grant explained in a recent McKinsey article, emotionally intelligent leaders treat “emotions like data.”  Beliefs, norms, and past experiences influence our capacity for change. It’s on leadership teams to ensure people understand the change, how it benefits the company, and how it benefits them on an individual level.

    People may be surprised by the change or they may not think that the change is needed. Some may also think that it’s just not going to happen. Because employees are preoccupied or worried about what’s going on, their productivity may drop.

    Meet with each business unit and try to answer the following questions:

    • What challenges are they facing?
    • What silos are they bumping up against?
    • How do those silos impact their ability to perform (for example, are they missing critical information? Having trouble locating files? Contributing to an inconsistent customer experience?)
    • What manual tasks eat up the most time?
    • What needs to be automated/outsourced/delegated so that employees can focus on activities that create value for the business?
    • What do they feel would help them be more productive or successful in their role?
    • Are there policies/approval flows creating bottlenecks/unnecessary work?

    Additionally, you’ll want to leave some room for employees to ask questions about the change and share their concerns. The more information you can gather, the easier it’ll be to develop a change management strategy that puts people at ease and sets them up to succeed.

    Managing fear of change starts with psychological safety

    Talking about change is great, but it can only go so far.

    You need to create an environment where people feel safe sharing ideas, exploring solutions, and learning from failure.

    Beyond ensuring that workers feel supported by business leaders and peers alike, you also need to arm teams with the resources they need to succeed. So tools, training, and a detailed change management strategy that includes the plan of attack.

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    A few things you can do to promote a sense of psychological safety:

    Give employees different ways to participate

    Change can only happen when the whole community is engaged in the process. It makes them feel valued and gives them a reason to get invested in the company’s success.

    It also helps leaders understand how different people prefer to engage–and build a plan that accounts for individual needs.

    Many people prefer to brainstorm and learn in a social setting. According to a 2021 Leesman report, 66% of workers who went remote during COVID said learning from others was one of the things they missed most about the office.

    Social learning experiences allow workers to exchange ideas and share informal knowledge among their peers. It’s a core part of UAT testing–which combines end-user training and testing–allowing teams to work together to identify and solve problems directly related to their jobs.

    For others, certain collaborative learning exercises might make them anxious. For employees with a fear of failure, interactive learning experiences and “circle-based sharing” are likely to be the driving forces behind their fears.

    So, rather than forcing people to role-play or put them on the spot in front of their colleagues, why not allow them to share feedback via 1:1 interviews or written surveys? Everyone should contribute — but it’s important to recognize that “active participation” looks different for different people.

    Prepare employees for the challenges on the horizon

    This will help alleviate fears related to job loss or not being able to keep up with new demands. This links back to that idea that anxiety often comes from the inability to prepare for unknown threats.

    That means, investing in tools, education, and training. Note that preparation needs to start ASAP. Your strategy should be tailored around individual roles, use real data, and apply to real processes—not hypothetical scenarios with little relevance to the demands of the job.

    Build long-term resilience with your change management strategy

    You want to ensure that your strategy allows employees to continue developing the skills they need to succeed in an uncertain future. (Good for retention and preventing future skills gaps).

    Beyond creating a change management strategy/culture for preparing existing staff, you’ll also want to rethink your  approach to recruiting and hiring to attract “change-ready” employees.

    Final thoughts

    Change in the workplace is much more than introducing a few new tools and rules. It’s about redefining how people work, think, and behave on the job. It doesn’t have to be scary. But alleviating a fear so deeply embedded in the human psyche is far from easy.

    Your change management strategy should aim to combat fears with a combination of storytelling, support, and real data. You need to consider how people respond to change and what’s causing them to respond that way.

    Whether they embrace change or seek comfort in the familiar, leaders must provide the support, training, and tech to prepare employees for future challenges.

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