Understanding How to Manage Fear of Change in the workplace


Understanding How to Manage Fear of Change in the workplace

Managing change is always going to be an issue for organisations. Whether it’s a restructure, a merger, a technology update, a new initiative or even a new CEO, organisations constantly face some form of change. The challenge is to firstly accept the need for change and secondly, successfully navigate change. Unfortunately, organisations often manage change very poorly which can cause staff to adopt a survival mentality and a fear of change occurs. At its core, survival behaviour is a form of resistance which is a natural reaction to unwelcomed change.


I love the idea of workplace veterans – the people who proudly list the various initiatives, campaigns, restructures and even CEOs that have survived. I have often considered the idea of awarding medals to these people as some form of recognition for their survival skills and defiance in the face of organisational change… “This is my medal for the Great Restructure of 2005. We lost a lot of good people in that one. This one I got for the One Organisation Campaign of 2010 and this one is for stoicism by outlasting 5 CEOs in a 5 year period!” This kind of behaviour gives us some powerful insight into the psychological and emotional impact of poorly conceived and managed organisational change. Importantly it suggests that organisations need to accept that there will always be some form of resistance to change and ironically, the greatest resistance can come from the most loyal employees.

Not surprisingly, the enthusiasm for change usually comes from those driving the change and those who will benefit from the change. Conversely, those who will lose something from the change are less enthusiastic. What does this tell us? It tells us that people do not necessarily fear change, they fear loss. They fear loss of status, power, authority, staff, colleagues and even their job.

I am reminded of the Simpson episode about Homer eating the poisonous Fugu fish at the Japanese restaurant. Homer is told by the doctor that he will die and is given a pamphlet that outlines the five stages of grief he may experience, and in true Homer style he experiences each stage as the doctor explains each stage…

Doctor – Mr Simpson the first stage is denial.

Homer – No way because I am not dying

Doctor – The next stage is anger.

Homer – While you little…

Doctor – the next stage is fear

Homer – What’s after fear, what’s after fear?

Doctor – Mr Simpson the next stage is bargaining.

Homer – Doc, you’ve got to get me out of this. I’ll make worth your while.

Doctor – The last stage Mr Simpson is acceptance

Homer – Well, we’ve all got to go sometime.

Doctor – Mr Simpson I am impressed at your progress.

Unfortunately, not all of us are able to move as quickly through each stage as Homer. The point is that people fear loss and need to come to terms with any loss caused by organisation change. Organisations need to understand that staff will be affected differently by change, but one thing that is clear is that different people will react differently. Be aware of those staff that have the most to lose and those that have the most to gain.

Here are some simple pointers to consider when managing change

  • Understand the motivators for change
  • Communicate the objectives for the change clearly and concisely
  • Be open to suggestions from others
  • Take responsibility to lead the change
  • Accept that there will be resistance
  • Acknowledge that change is continual
  • Understand the relationship between change and loss

Check out Managing Uncertainty in the Workplace

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