Fear During Change

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Fear increases when organizations are in transition.  Leaders fear failure. Workers fear the unknown.  Fear during change is normal but it shouldn’t be ignored.   Fear distracts people. Fear drives unproductive behavior and causes poor decision making.

Lack of communication usually increases fear during change.  Workers are great observers of behavior. They see leaders meet behind closed doors.  They see high paid consultants come in and meet with leaders.  They sense important decisions are being made but the leaders aren’t talking. This leaves the workers to their own thoughts and fears. Will there be lay-offs? Will I be laid off? Will my department change? Will my boss change?  In the absence of information, people make stuff up. We know from research that people tend to fear the worst. Their fears are almost always worse than the reality. They guess and feed off of each other.  Without leaders talking, the rumor mill is the main source of information (even speculative information is better than no information). 

Thus, I’ve found part of my job as a change consultant is to reduce fear. I counsel leaders on how to communicate during change. They need to follow a set of rules such as: 1) tell what you know, what you don’t know, and when you’ll communicate more, 2) have consistent, compelling messages so employees understand why the change is happening and the scope of the change, and 3) communicate what is NOT changing which is just as important for employees to understand.  I counsel the project team on how to best reach out to employees, involve key people and expand ownership of what is coming.  These tactics help employees better understand the change.  With a set of principles and tactics, fear can be reduced. It can’t be eliminated entirely but it should be addressed. You don’t want fear to distract workers and drive behavior. Change is hard enough without rampant fear.

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