Fearing Transformation – Transforming Fear?

Transformation seems to be under way in most organizations. But, as most of them can testify, it is a tough job to break organizational inertia. Even though the urgency to act is often very clear. But there might be the problem. Transformation efforts can easily be perceived as a threat – to one’s comfort, position, power, and ultimately also to one’s job. Animals confronted with an overwhelming threat will instinctively choose among flight, fight, and freeze.

There is a fine line between breaking inertia by highlighting the seriousness of the situation and triggering these instinctive reactions. Just wielding threats, you will get freeze, fight, or flight. Instead, a positive dynamic is needed to escape that zero-sum game. This means creating positive momentum at the organizational level while not losing sight of individual needs. It is important to find the right balance of rational understanding and emotional engagement for each individual – therefore a more personalized communication is essential.

Why good communication and individual support are not enough

But even if everybody in your organization understands the reasons and the broad directions of your transformation – why is it so often that there is a significant gap between cognitive understanding and practical action? In our experience, it still has to do with fear.

Research shows that there is fear in almost any variant possible. All human actions can potentially fail or result in painful consequences: whether it is driving a car, entering a relationship or speaking up at work. We typically learn to deal with our fears somehow as we grow up – by rationalizing, by actively influencing the outcome (e.g., building the necessary skills), by establishing routines or some other sort of behavioral self-therapy.

The mechanisms we develop to cope with fear in everyday situations do not work so easily in the face of the unknown. Fear of the unknown (FOTU) is considered today as the original and most potent fear. The monster in a horror movie is most frightening as long as is unclear how it really looks like. Here, it is much more difficult to train behaviors for dealing with fear, as the unknown has by definition no known precedent.

Unfortunately, in transformations today, there are a more unknowns than ever, and there is little time. How will our competition look like in 5 years (e.g., who would have thought a few years ago that the BBC would compete against Amazon)? How will industry dynamics unfold – think of the open question how banking will look like in a few years? No one can really tell, not even the CEOs everyone else in the organization is looking to for orientation and reassurance. They just cannot live up to this and need to accept that – denial will just breed more FOTU.

Learning to confront the unknown

How to get out of this trap? Research tells us that there are mechanisms that help people overcome fear and especially FOTU.

  • First of all, adopt a gradual approach: Move forward in small steps, invest in frequent feedback and celebrate early successes – this will build confidence in the (organization’s) ability to respond effectively to change (even though still no clear understanding of the target state exists).
  • Second, togetherness helps overcome FOTU: If others manifestly share the same destiny and the same fear, it becomes easier to bear. We are literally in the “same boat”.
  • And third, a good balance between control (i.e., being able to shape what happens in my immediate environment) and a promise of support should problems arise (by the organization, the board, your boss) might alleviate FOTU.

Ideally, these mechanisms will feed a self-reinforcing mechanism. Once you sustain this for a while, once organizations are successfully moving along, the perceived unknown will become less intimidating.

Three key takeaways to transform fear

So, all in all, FOTU in transformations will not completely disappear, but can be contained. Key learnings are:

  • Do not talk of transformations as “matters of life or death,” as it might trigger instinctive reactions of fear, flight, or fight.
  • Accept FOTU as normal and accept your inability to eliminate it completely.
  • Focus rather on what you can do – smaller horizons, smaller steps, more support, demystifying fear by practical experience.

And there might be a positive aspect after all: In the course of evolution, fear was apparently a sensible survival strategy. The resulting small steps have proven more successful than many big leaps. Organizations that work to gradually phase out fear may discover that this process forces productive learning.

Axel Sauder
Axel Sauder
Head of Organization Practice

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