Managing fear of change

Change management is a big field, and it sounds scary because it says ‘management’, which is what managers do, right?

The reality is that if only managers manage change, that change will always fall short, or fail entirely.

There’s an entire sub-specialty to change management in projects, where it’s often called change control, which relies on identifying changes in advance, doing due diligence about controlling the effects of change (change pre-vetting), and then formally approving or rejecting the change.

In some environments this complexity is merged with configuration and quality management. Even more informally, this can be done by incorporating change control in regular meetings and good intra- and inter-team communication.

For small teams in non-profit settings, maybe relying on volunteers, the main change management challenges are:

  1. people leaving mid-way through a project, with new ones coming on board who have steep learning curves ahead of them; and
  2. people being afraid of doing new things in new ways.

The first of these challenges can be addressed by making sure that team leaders have 2ICs (seconds in charge), and by teams talking to each other every day about what they’re doing, where they’re at, and where others can find the work they’ve done so far.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross photo.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004).

The second problem – fear – is harder to address.

Theory has it that many people react to change the same way as the traditional response to bereavement, or news of a life-threatening illness.

In the late 1960s, Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced a model to address death and dying from a clinical and therapeutic perspective. That model talked about five stages of emotional and intellectual response to death and dying:

  • denial;
  • anger;
  • bargaining;
  • depression; and
  • acceptance.

In 2002, American management academics David Elrod and Donald Tippett adapted Kübler-Ross’s model to describe typical responses to change in organisational or work settings. They talked of a curve, starting with uncertainty, plunging into a ‘death valley’, re-named in my adaptation as the ‘valley of despair, before rising again as competence boosts confidence and achievements spurs effort.

Change management curve diagram by Peter Strempel.

When a new and inexperienced team comes together, some of its members might be overwhelmed by:

  • the apparent complexity of the tasks ahead of them;
  • the apparent chaos of project settings, particularly at the startup phase;
  • their own inexperience in carrying out some tasks; and
  • apparently impossibly tight time frames.

It’s enough to make some people just shut down and retreat, waiting to be told exactly what to do and how. But that might be a luxury the team and its leaders cannot afford. Close supervision of one team member by another means that two team members are taken away from the project.

In theory, the valley of despair is followed by a recognition that the tasks and outcomes can be achieved after all. That increased confidence then leads to a boost in confidence and productivity, sometimes exceeding all expectations.

  • Where are you on this curve?
  • Where are your teammates?
  • How can you tell?

It’s sometimes not as easy as looking for some literal correlation between project situations and Kübler-Ross’s categories. But some behaviours could include:

  • withdrawing and refusing to be part of the team;
  • catastrophizing, by listing all the possible reasons why the project tasks and goals can’t possibly be achieved;
  • dismissing management directions and team suggestions as silly or unworkable;
  • clinging on to their little parts of the project and refusing to work with others; or
  • defending their own comfort zones as the best way of doing something, even when the rest of the team has decided that there are better ways to move forward.

What should you do if you recognise yourself in any of those places?

Turn to your teammates, team leader, project manager, or some other trusted person with knowledge of the project to discuss your particular situation.

What if you can recognise someone else stuck in the valley?

First of all, be mindful of the human dimensions of any situation. The people who are frozen by fear of change might simply have to be persuaded that they will not be seen to fail if their skills don’t match the tasks, and will not be laughed at as dummies for asking questions or seeking help.

But secondly, help can only be given if the people facing fear are prepared to push themselves out of their comfort zones, and, sometimes, to commit to changing their own lives for the better by overcoming their fears.

Fear is a perfectly healthy, normal reaction to change. What’s not healthy is to get stuck there.

Those paralysed by fear, and resisting change by various means, have to be a bit proactive in seeking help. And the rest of us have to be ready and willing to offer that help without judgement or condescension.

Maslow’s paradigm

Abraham Maslow photo.
Abraham Maslow (1908-1970).

For both kinds of people, it might be useful to consider Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is a well-known paradigm in considering human motivation, and is widely used by managers to assess employee performance, motivational factors, and reward structures.

Maslow was a psychologist looking into what motivates people to strive for happiness and success when he came up with his model in the 1940s.

Maslow’s model is of a hierarchy of human needs, each one necessary before the next one can be pursued. These needs can be summarized as:

  • physiological, or existential needs like air, water, and food;
  • safety needs such as shelter, personal and material security, health, and others;
  • belonging, such as to a group or society, and love, such as family and romantic relationships;
  • esteem, meaning to be valued in one’s affiliations and relationships, which is thought to be the basis of self-esteem; and
  • self-actualization, which is about feeling empowered to imagine and pursue one’s own goals and purposes.

So, without the basics needed to survive we don’t strive for greater security, and without that security, we don’t look for esteem, and certainly not self-actualization.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs adapted to change contexts diagram by Peter Strempel.

In my illustration, the diagonal arrows to the left of the pyramid illustrate what needs have to be satisfied before individuals feel confident to act more creatively and socially.

If, for some people, the basic needs are threatened, or compromised in some way, they are unlikely to be able to move on to reaching for their higher needs.

The arrows to the right of the pyramid indicate how people might behave professionally and socially if their needs are not being met, and then, how they might behave if those meetings are being met.

It is usually the qualities and behaviours associated with the top half of the pyramid that employers look for and value.

But when basic needs are not being met, these qualities and behaviours may be absent. People stuck in the lower part of this model may be hostile or withdrawn, as discussed in the previous section on the valley of despair in change management.

And they may not even know they’re responding that way to their circumstances.

So what now?

The first thing to consider is where you fit into this picture. And then for you to act if you think you need to.

The second step, particularly in a project environment, is to consider whether your team members are coping, and if not, how you or someone else might be able to help them.

You don’t need to know the details of their private lives. You just need to make sure they understand that help is available if they’re struggling with project work. More help can be accessed if the problems run deeper than just the project work.

Teams move forward as teams, not as a few stars and a bunch of losers; that kind of mentality always ensures failure in the biggest projects in the world just as much as the smallest ones. As in sports, if one team member has a problem, the whole team has a problem.

There are, however, two areas of caution.

First, not everyone may want help, and may resent what can seem like an intrusion. Don’t force matters. If you still think something can or ought to be done, talk to someone more senior.

Secondly, the models presented here are not a formula that applies to any or all circumstances. They are only models designed as food for thought. People are not robots and will not ever fit neatly into fixed categories or theories. Models can never replace sound evaluation and judgement in the precise circumstances of any situation.

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