Street Smarts for Change Management

The Fear Factor and Change

Jeff Cole
Contributor: Jeff Cole
Posted: 11/08/2016


One of the greatest drivers of immediate change in humans is fear.  Sure, we have evolved since the caveman, but that ancient core part of our brain is still embedded in us – we are still genetically wired to respond to fear. Our brains drive measureable chemical and physical changes in us when our fear reaches certain trigger thresholds. You have heard of the fight or flight response – a physical and mental reaction triggered by fear.

Fear certainly resides on a spectrum and a timeline. (Your fear that you may someday lose all your money in a banking system collapse is likely not as great as your fear that the wildly driving drunken man in the lane next to you may, at any moment, cause you great pain…)  

In the United States at this writing, we are about to have a hotly contested presidential election. Many “fear” the outcome and consequences should their candidate not win.  This is one of several factors reflected in the Wall Street “fear index”  or VIX (volatility index) – an indicator that thrashes about like a seismograph when there is fear or uncertainty  in the market.   “My candidate is not going to win – sell everything!” “Wow – look at these bargains – buy it all!”   Investing and trading is as much about human psychology as it is in fundamental and technical corporate analysis.  

[Editor’s Note:  This did actually happen on election night with the DOW dropping 700 points in after hours trading only to close near record highs the next day…]

What does this have to do with those of us driving process improvements? Several things actually…

Ethics: Can you get people to follow your new process by scaring the heck out of them that if they don’t use it the world will collapse?   Probably.   Should you?  No.   Ethically we should never resort to that.   While you can (and should) underscore legitimate burning platforms in communicating your change, you should not resort to negative puffery and fearmongering.   Aside from ethics, it can also irreparably harm your reputation. If people get burnt on this once, your trust-o-meter takes a permanent dive.

Communications: That said, understand that many large changes can trigger fear.  Sometimes that is made worse by people’s imaginations – they may attach motivations, consequences, outcomes, etc. that are far from the truth.   It’s been said that in horror movies, the scariest scene can just be a close-up of a doorknob with some tense background music.   What’s behind that door?  You imagine a basket of puppies and I envision Jack Nicholson with an axe.   Same reason that the tensest time in a hospital is often waiting to hear about an outcome. Understand that phenomenon, and try to anticipate and answer those questions people may have about your change early on – and throughout the change.  Even better – get them involved in designing the change so they feel a part of it.

Feel/Felt/Found:  One way to communicate to help people manage the fear factor on your change is the feel-felt-found approach. It might go something like this…Audience member: “We are afraid that this change to the process will create a huge learning curve.” You: “Thanks for bringing up that important point  – I understand exactly how you feel. In fact, a number of people in the xyz division felt the same way last year.   What they found was the actual time and energy it took on their parts was significantly less than they had built up in their minds beforehand”. You have recognized the person, acknowledged their concern in a positive manner, and helped manage their imagination in filling in the blanks. And if one person states a concern, it’s possible that many others are thinking it.

So, there you have a couple thoughts on fear and change. I feel like I now deserve an adult beverage, but my wife felt like I should be doing yard work, and unfortunately found me – so I must go now.  

Happy change!

Jeff Cole
Contributor: Jeff Cole
Posted: 11/08/2016


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