Five Strategies For Managing the Fear of Change

Fear of change comes from a rational place. When people fear change, often it's because they question whether where you want to take them is better than where they are at now. Click To Tweet

Why Employees Fear Change

Like the penguins residing on this melting iceberg, change is inevitable. In business (and life), we must move on as circumstances and forces change all around us.  What was once a solid foundation on which we could put our trust (a massive iceberg), now is a death trap as the forces of change turn up the heat and melt the iceberg.

The question becomes is the future going to be any better than the present!

As we look at these penguins watching their leader take the plunge  in the deep blue sea, they will either find dinner or be dinner! For some penguins, making the plunge off the iceberg and into the sea is something that they fear.

They rightfully know that change comes with risk. While the iceberg may be melting, they reason that staying on the melting iceberg may make more sense than jumping into the mouth of a waiting shark.

Ultimately, the success of this change journey and the anxiety it is bringing depends on the leadership skills of the boss penguin.

The boss penguin will have to get the rest of the group to recognize that taking their fates in their own wings and outmaneuvering the  shark below is better than waiting for the iceberg to melt completely at which point there will be more sharks to handle.

Change cannot be credibly sold as only being beneficial. Every change also carries risk. To help others get over their fear of change, you have to show them how the benefits of change outweigh the risks. Click To Tweet

Like the penguins, we must change or we will die. (One way or another, that iceberg will melt completely!)

The business landscape is littered with once great companies that could not adapt and change as needed to new business realities (remember Blockbuster or the once respected national retailer Montgomery Ward).

Leading others effectively through change can be difficult however.  Change can bring fear and anxiety as employees face the unknown.

Despite our “superior” intelligence, we humans are not much different from these penguins when it comes to anxiety about change.  For this reason, leaders must help their employees manage their fear of change as they take the plunge into the unknown.

How to Handle Employee Fears About Change

Five proven strategies that leaders can use for managing the fear of change are the following:

Sell the desirable future.

Employees must see the value of a change before they will accept it.  Identify the positive benefits of the change that is needed and explain why the desirable future is better than the current reality.

In penguin language, explain the better opportunities that will come from diving into the sea and show clearly why following you is better than staying on a melting iceberg!

Realign your reward and recognition systems to the required change.

Too often, change initiatives are undertaken with insufficient thought on what gets rewarded and punished in an organization.

Change can be unsettling and painful in the beginning for some employees.  This can further increase employees’ fear of change. Make the new change desirable by rewarding employee performance that conforms to the required behavior.

In penguin language, toss a few fish to those penguins that have bravely followed you into the deep blue sea as this will encourage them to stay engaged with you for the long journey!

Communicate, communicate, and then communicate again.

It’s a human failing but we generally need to hear most points more than once before we finally “get it.”  (I am sure our collective parents would agree.)  Reinforce the need for the required change by communicating your message several times through the spoken and written word.

Listen to your team for what is said and what is not said and respond as appropriate.  In general, let your employees know that you are there with them throughout this change to help alleviate their fear of change.

In penguin language, remember that the deep blue sea is dark so keep making that funny noise as you swim ahead of them so they’ll know that you are still nearby!

Ensure that your team has the skills necessary for the change.

Employees are often fearful about a change because they are not sure that they will be able to perform as well as they have done in the past.  Their fear may be valid (as they recognize a missing skill that they do not possess) or it may be invalid (an unfounded emotional reaction arising from their anxiety surrounding the change).

Whatever the source of their fear, it will help if you provide training and development opportunities for your team.  This will give them the confidence they need to implement the required change.

In penguin language, allow the raft of penguins an opportunity to improve their swimming skills before you take them off full speed for deep underwater currents!

Model the change behaviors that you want to see from your team (walk-the-talk).

Walk the Talk

There are few situations that are more troubling to followers than to learn that their leader does not “walk the talk.” This breeds cynicism and heightens employee fears that the change you advocate will not be positive.

From their perspective, if you do not believe in the change enough to implement the required behaviors yourself then why should they do it.  Walk the talk and you will show them through your powerful example the value of the change and your own willingness to do yourself what you require of others.

In penguin language, take the plunge yourself first from the iceberg and let others follow your lead!

Change is inevitable and the fear of the unknown can be unsettling.  The continuing state of constant change means leaders in this new millennium must know how to manage the fears of their employees successfully.

Leaders have a much better chance of managing the customary fear that comes with a change effort when they sell a desirable future, realign reward and recognition systems, communicate with their teams continually, provide training and development opportunities, and walk the talk.

Help your employees with their fear of change: explain why the risks outweigh the benefits; reward them for their change efforts; train them as necessary; and walk-your-talk. Click To Tweet
Written by Robert Tanner | Copyrighted Material | All Rights Reserved Worldwide

This article is accurate to the best of the author’s knowledge.
Content is for informational or educational purposes only and does not substitute for professional advice in business, management, legal, or human resource matters.

Robert Tanner, MBA

Welcome to my leadership blog. I'm the Founder & Principal Consultant of Business Consulting Solutions LLC, a certified practitioner of psychometric assessments, and a former Adjunct Professor of Management. As a leadership professional, I bring 20+ years of real world experience at all levels of management.

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