Change Management and the Fear of Change
In this second installment of a four-part series, I write about how to manage the fear of change.
Fear as the Fight Response
Whenever confronted by change, all of us experience some degree of fear that stimulates our fight or flight response. The perceived intensity of the threat, determines the intensity of the response. And each of us responds differently. The predominant symptom of those who lash out when they are afraid is sometimes called a counter-phobic response. These individuals attack the source of fear—most times inappropriately—using some form of overt aggression, usually focused on another co-worker. Whether consciously recognized or not, it is meant to weaken, neutralize, or remove the perceived source of the threat.
Counter-phobic Response v. Courage
It is important to note that a counter-phobic response differs from courage. Whereas the counter-phobic response is a thoughtless reaction, those immersed in courage act rationally. They face their fears, rather than attack them–or those that stimulate fear. In his book, What Happy People Know, Dan Baker refers to one aspect of courage as “embracing our insecurities.” Courageous people have figured out how to neutralize their emotional triggers. Those in the armed forces or on the front lines of law enforcement understand this very well. The courageous fight is a rational and often moral decision to fight. The counter-phobic response is not.
The Phobic Response
At the other end of the spectrum are those who are phobic. They either covertly deal with fear using passive-aggressive techniques such as lies, rumor, or gossip; or they embrace the flight response, exhibiting psychosomatic illness, detachment, or withdrawal. Needless to say, neither the counter-phobic nor the phobic responses are productive in negotiating change. In fact, they obstruct and undermine it.
The Challenge to the Manager
The challenge for the manager is not so much recognizing the fear response in team members—the symptoms are often obvious. And a manager can’t directly confront a fear or any of its symptoms because people won’t talk about them, they will even deny them. Such an approach only makes people feel more vulnerable and exacerbates the problem. The solution is to address fear in a way that neutralizes the fight or flight response.
An Approach that Works
The best strategy is pre-emptive. It comprises clarity and transparency combined with appreciative thinking and mindfulness techniques people can use to stop the disruptive and destructive effects of the fear response.
Clarity and Transparency
Be clear about the challenges facing the organization and, to the extent that it is possible, talk about the threats and the strategies the organization is employing to address them. Talk about what team members can do to help the organization move forward.
Appreciative Inquiry is about the co-evolutionary search for the best in people, their organizations, and the relevant world around them. In its broadest focus, it involves systematic discovery of what gives “life” to a living system when it is most alive, most effective, and most constructively capable in economic, ecological, and human terms. AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential. —David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney
The Power of Appreciation
Engage the team in exercises of appreciative thinking. The Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve has promoted Appreciative Inquiry as an effective method for management and innovation. As the architects of Appreciative Inquiry, David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney, write: “Appreciative Inquiry is about the co-evolutionary search for the best in people, their organizations, and the relevant world around them. In its broadest focus, it involves systematic discovery of what gives ‘life’ to a living system when it is most alive, most effective, and most constructively capable in economic, ecological, and human terms. AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential.” Neuroscience supports this model as it has demonstrated that no individual can be in the state of appreciation and fear at the same time because it is the same neural pathway. They can vacillate, but the sustained practice of appreciation directly diminishes fear. Through effective use of appreciative thinking, teams can imagine and help create new futures for an organization.
An extraordinary example of the power of appreciation is the story of psychiatrist Viktor Frankl who survived a Nazi death camp. He endured the mental and emotional devastation by choosing his focus. Instead of the humiliation, he focused on dignified humility; instead of the horror of surviving, the courage of survival; instead of the pervasive mud and dirt, the single flower that broke through to the sunlight.
Mindfulness Techniques to Dissolve or Diminish the Fear Response
Mindfulness has become a very popular approach to managing team member stress and improving performance. Mindfulness in the world of work means employing techniques that help individuals calm their minds and focus on the present moment without judgment. The practice generates a sense of wellbeing; and when practiced over time it becomes a foundation for courage. There are many techniques. Some of the most popular and effective are proper breathing, getting sufficient sleep, meditation, movement—such as yoga, (which employs meditation), visualization, and music. Oftentimes these approaches are integrated in an individualized daily practice.
The Power of Meditation
The most important mindfulness technique is meditation. It has been scientifically proven to strengthen the area of the brain, the Cingulate Cortex, that gives an individual the ability to resist the seduction of the “lizard brain” (more technically, the amygdala and brain stem) and fall prey to the fight or flight response. Instead, an individual who meditates develops freer access to the Neocortex and the ability to reason, to self-comfort, and to imagine positive scenarios and outcomes that don’t require a fight or a flight.
Emotional Trigger Techniques
We all have emotional triggers. The most pronounced are those experienced by military personnel who have endured deeply traumatic emotional experiences. The powerful triggers they experience are often diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. But, again, we all have them. And even if we meditate daily for years, we can be surprised by a simple word, comment, or experience that unexpectedly triggers a powerful fight or flight response.
Nevertheless, there is a mindfulness practice that can help; and a manager can facilitate this practice through workshops and team meetings. Ask team members to confidentially keep a record of every time they notice their fight or flight response—especially if the responses are powerful. Sometimes it happens immediately, but especially over time, they will see a pattern and be able to name the trigger. Some of the most common triggers include blame, bullying, disrespect, loss of control, not being heard, rejection, or being marginalized. Triggers are unique to each individual—yet once they are named, they can be mastered—especially when combined with meditation.
The seven-step exercise is simple. First, practice noticing your triggers; second, when you are emotionally triggered, stop the momentum of the thought pattern—for just a moment; third, breathe into your diaphragm, slowing your heart rate; fourth, release the fight or flight emotions through your breath; fifth, calm and clear your mind of the emotional residue; sixth, center your awareness on the present moment—appreciate the moment; finally, focus on a productive response, using your personal power in the moment to make a good choice. For those experiencing recurring, powerful triggers, it is beneficial to seek out counseling—on your own or through an employee assistance program (EAP). For managers, I recommend putting an EAP in place, especially if your organization is moving through difficult change or is a high-stress environment.
Creating teams that embrace clarity, transparency, and mindfulness within organizations that provide the space, time, and training for team members to learn and practice, is a very powerful strategy to unhook the fear response and productively manage change.