Fear of change?
An interesting discussion I got involved in recently is about ‘What gets in the way of embracing change?’
It quickly revolved passionately around whether employees like change or not.
People love change!
From my experience, people love change! – Not convinced? Look around you: People love fashion, wearing different clothes and hair styles, driving a new car, using gadgets with cool new features (look at the success of iPhone, iPad, etc.!) and so on. These are all changes we embrace all the time!
Obviously, ‘change’ as such is not the issue; so what is?
Angst or fear?
‘Angst’ describes “an acute but unspecific feeling of anxiety”. There is no specific source, however, so angst is based on the abstract, the unknown.
In contrast, ‘fear’ is anxiety about a “possible or probable situation or event”. Strangely, fear of change hints at something specific and not at some unspecific angst the general term ‘change’ leads up to. Nobody seems to use the term angst relating to change. – So what is the mix-up about?
When it comes to fashion or hair styles the fear is not about the new color or cut but about how others will respond to it and how this will affect me.
Will the person I fancy secretly finally notice me and be attracted to me? Will I appear more daring, more professional or more ‘me’ branded – or what ever else it is you wish to symbolize or achieve through the change that you initiate.
People fear uncertainty of the consequences!
What people fear are the consequences for them that the ‘change’ entails and even more so if they have no control over the change. Translated into the workplace this comes down to what changes for the individual employee: First of all, their gotten-used-to equilibrium gets disturbed by an outside force – not by free choice of the individual. This type of change typically induces much uncertainty for an individual with little or no control over how it will play out for them. Instead, the well-established and familiar routine stops. It is replaced by something different, possibly something they don’t know or understand fully.
Now, where the fear comes from specifically for the employee is that one day the employee is competent in doing their work and delivering results, while the next day (i.e. when the ‘change’ takes effect) they may need to learn, adapt, give up comfortable routines, figure things out the hard way, may not know how, fail and struggle ‑ and be inhibited during this period to produce results again so this comes with a lack of satisfaction and appreciation or other forms of acknowledgment.
Other colleagues may adapt better, learn faster and surpass them in the ability to the work done in the new way. Then, the employee may find they got left behind and may no longer be needed by the new organization. This potential lack of professional competency is the origin of the fear possibly combined with loss of certain perks or proprietary knowledge acquired over time that helped them staying afloat and ahead of others in the good old days.
Ask yourself if you would like to be surprised today with a major reorganization, for example, that let’s you hanging in the limbo with uncertainty about your fate within the company for months or by a new process thought out in some remote ivory-tower that is unlikely to work in the reality of your workplace…
This is where the major opposing force to effective change comes from: the employee resistance. If resistance is high also the chances are high that the change will not be implemented effectively, not efficiently or not even at all.
Change as an equation
Change can be expressed in an equation called Gleicher’s Formula (after David Gleicher and Richard Beckhard, 1969). Several variations of the equation exist but they all include the same three factors, which multiplied need to exceed the amount of resistance (=cost) on the other side of the equation for the change to be implemented successfully.
According to the streamlined formula (by Kathleen Dannemiller, 1992), change (C) is the product of
- The dissatisfaction with the status quo (A),
- The desired state (B) and
- The practical steps taken towards the desired state (D).
These factors multiplied must outweigh the amount of resistance represented here by the cost of change (X). Here is the formula: C = (ABD) > X
In practice, there must be significant pressure present from dissatisfaction with the current state (status quo), a clear description of what the new state should look like in the future (vision) and effective measures taken to get from the current to the desired state (action plan).
Overcoming resistance in the change equation
Resistance may include different elements but a major contributor is the resistance originating from the people affected by the change. It is crucial for reaching sustainable results to keep this friction low by engaging these vital stakeholders actively and early on where possible.
What it comes down to in practice is having a sound plan and excellent execution of change management together with the people affected by the change. Include them to work issues out as they arise early on when alterations cost little and to buy in to the change and drive it. Don’t underestimate the impact and potential of employee empowerment and the pay-off that it can have for the organization that does it right!
Including and empowering employees effectively in organizational and procedural change projects becomes a powerful differentiator between an effective change implementation and a costly disaster.