Managing fear of change

INN331 – Management Issues for Information Professionals

WEEK TWELVE: Final paper.



Global interconnectedness, instant communication, and continual technological innovation has created organisational environments almost constantly in flux, undergoing a kind of permanent restructuring or change management process to meet rapidly changing priorities (Pearlson & Saunders, 2010, p. 110; Smith, 2011, pp. 113-115).

Managers and professionals working in such environments are tasked with understanding change needs and strategies, and implementing solutions chosen by executives, yet face the statistical probability of failing in 50 to 70 per cent of all change endeavours (Aiken & Keller, 2009, p. 100; Smith, 2011, p. 115).

The predicament in such situations is that all organisational staff, including those without management responsibilities, lose if the organisation fails, implying a logical interest by all in successful change outcomes. The rational approach is therefore to facilitate change by working not only for the strategy goals mandated by executive leadership, but also by addressing resistance to change, and therefore seeking to overcome the fear that causes much of that resistance.

Since change management theory and practice is not new and has a poor success rate, what can managers and professionals do to take the fear out of organisational change with positive new approaches, and not just lip service to orthodox methods?

A first step is to be rigorous in defining the problem of fear and considering options for overcoming it. Equally important is to understand the capacities of the principal change facilitators, being managers and professionals in most contemporary public and private sector organisations. The next step is to look at their capacity to identify and act on the problem in the varying circumstances that may apply in diverse organisations and organisational cultures.

Options emerging from management theory are revealed as limited by an unhealthy focus on a reductionist determinism whose theoretical and practical focus is to reduce people to passive, malleable configuration items that can and should be controlled according to a precise cause and effect relationship between determined method and predictable, passive response, and whose sole value is measures of numerical quanta. This engineering paradigm in management thinking is challenged for its mechanical conception of problem-solving and its counterproductive failure to recognise the qualitative dimension of informed judgement as superior to the rigid pursuit of formulaic management prescriptions derived from theory since the late 1970s.

The proposed alternative to reductionist determinism is a return to the humanism of Drucker (2007, pp. 335-34), expressed in a recognition of organisations as social endeavours in which an expert, professional subjectivity is necessary to render judgements as the basis of sound organisational strategy and management practice.

Fear in organisational contexts

The psychological function of fear is to protect those feeling it from perceived danger (Antony & Roemer, 2011, p. 117), with fear of the unknown, or fear of fear itself, sometimes becoming as palpable as fear of concrete threats (Dienes, Torres-Harding, Reinecke, Freeman, & Sauer, 2011, p. 159).

Psychologist Abraham Maslow (1943, pp. 372-383) outlined a hierarchical structure of human needs and motivations (see Figure 1 below for an illustration), often misunderstood by excluding the motivational dimension. It is seen as a hierarchy because ‘successively higher needs can’t be met until the lower-level needs are satisfied’ (Koehler & Baxter, 2013, p. 53), and Maslow proposed that people cannot progress from the physiological to safety and security, love and recognition, or an ultimate self-actualisation, until the preceding needs are met, and motivation is found to attain a new need. ‘The organism [person] is dominated and its behavior organized only by unsatisfied needs’ (Maslow, 1943, p. 375).

The implication is that when one of the basic needs is not met, or perceived to be threatened, an individual will be unable or unwilling to pursue one of the more sophisticated needs, such as the economic, social and self-esteem factors related to work, including those of self-actualisation, called ‘metaneeds’, accompanied by ‘metamotivations’ (Maslow, 1967, p.94).




In organisational settings, fears often arise from economic uncertainties (Schilder, 2006, p. 87) like job losses (Stum, 2001, p. 7) or loss of esteem, prestige, and parity with colleagues as a consequence of doubting one’s own competence or capacity to measure up to requirements, or to what others are capable of achieving (Mohan and Ahlemann, 2013, p. 832; O’Donnell, 1999, p. 257; Schein, 2010, pp. 303-304; Vidaillet, 2008, pp. 125-126). These fears are not confined to blue-collar workers, but extend into the professional middle class (Dallinger, 2013, p. 83), and possibly also into executive leadership.

Rapid and continuing changes can instil in even the most highly skilled professionals ‘a fear of obsolescence regarding technical knowledge and skills’ (Kaplan & Lerouge, 2007, p. 326) or because of rôle ambiguity, career concerns and ‘work culture issues’ (Brawn, 2012, p. 34; Major, Davis, Germano, Fletcher, Sanchez-Hucles, & Mann, 2007, p. 411). This kind of fear does not need to be rational. Just the perception of ‘threats to … job status or security’ (Umble and Umble, 2014, p. 18) can turn this fear into real and potent barrier to change (Kearns, 2013, p. 15) by motivating resistance or obstruction to change as efforts to maintain a known status quo (Oleson, 2004, p. 84; Umble and Umble, 2014, p. 18; Wolitzky, 2011, p. 47), or as a form of denial, manifested by attempting not to engage with change (Brawn, 2012, p. 34).

Firoozmand (2014, pp. 27-28) has likened organisational change to a roller-coaster ride, which corresponds with Elrod and Tippett’s (2002, pp. 274-283) comparison of change and grieving processes, illustrating the roller-coaster effect with a variety of graphic representations, including ‘Schneider’s classic change curve’ (Elrod and Tippett, 2002, p. 282) (see Figure 2 below).

The topography of that curve shows that those managing change must count on plummeting staff morale and motivation as they come to grips with the scope and scale of changes.




It is during this stage that staff commitment may be lost entirely to negative motivations, which Vidaillet (2008, pp. 27-32) suggests can destroy personal ties between staff, as well as lead ‘to self-withdrawal and to a paralysing fear of failure, of not being up to the job’. Many people may actually regard management theory and practice as the source of ‘fear, contradiction and confusion’ for its rigidities and ambiguities (Kearns, 2013, pp. 64-68).

All these causes and manifestations of fear, and the consequent resistance to change, is what confronts organisational change architects and facilitators.

Rôle of managers and professionals

The word ‘professional’ is so ubiquitous and yet so often undefined in the literature that Kearns (2013, p. 26) has a point in calling it ‘elastic’.

To determine a workable definition of ‘professional’, we begin with a generalisation: a professional is a white-collar salaried employee with a university education and relative autonomy in creative or intellectually challenging work (Krinn, 2011, p. 4; Morgan, 1984, p. 451). Historically, professionals initially focused on engineering paradigms of adapting scientific principles to perfect ‘problem-solutions’ according to ‘least-means’ economic principles, but this approach is no longer ‘applicable to the problems of open societal systems’ (Rittell & Webber, 1973, pp. 156-160).

Contemporary professionals are expected pursue broader than purely organisational goals, uphold professional standards, expertly diagnose and resolve organisational dysfunctions, deliver fit-for-purpose services regardless of conflicting organisational goals, and fearlessly represent truth to potentially unreceptive superiors (Burau & Andersen, 2014, pp. 274-276; Kearns, 2013, pp. 4-5; Pfeffer, 2013, p. xi; Weedman, 2008, p. 112).

Inherent in professional characteristics is ambiguity about whether professionals’ ultimate loyalty is to an organisation, a profession, or society more generally (Aho, 2013, p. 113; Schein, 2010, pp. 380-382), and whether this means they devalue management prerogatives to control and curtail professional staff (Sinclair, 2008, p. 326). However, since increasing numbers of professionals assume management duties, and many managers regard themselves as professionals in their own right, a ‘professional-managerial multiculture’ model outlined by Sinclair (2008, pp. 326-327) legitimises the notion of managing upwards, or ‘managing the managers’, and of regarding professionals as leaders in their own right. As illustrated in a possible professional career progression in Figure 3, below, however, the price for increasing organisational influence is greater responsibility and accountability.




The defining feature of professionalism arising from these considerations, and distinguishing professionals from trained technicians or specialists and other kinds of workers, is intellectual process. Professionals acquire ‘explicit’ knowledge of a kind anyone can access or transmit, but also derive from experience and practice ‘tacit’ knowledge, which is not as easily transferred (Gerami, 2010, pp. 235-236), making it a personal and professional strength. Tacit knowledge, enhanced by the professional practices of self-reflection and a commitment to continuous learning (Edwards & Bruce, 2006, p. 366) can turn acquired knowledge and expertise into ‘double-loop learning’, illustrated in Figure 4, below.

Argyris (1991, pp. 99-100) coined the term single loop learning to describe simple problem solving, and double loop learning to describe a more critical, reflective process for examining one’s own assumptions and problem solving behaviours as possible problems in themselves. Double loop learning is regarded as a prerequisite for creating new knowledge and the basis for questioning and changing fundamental assumptions, including those underpinning organisational culture and strategies (Arling & Chun, 2011, p. 231; Burke & Barron, 2014, pp. 125-126; Dauber, Fink, & Yolles, 2012, p. 8). This kind of learning and thinking cannot be practiced as a formulaic intervention, but relies on ‘challenge and testing in all aspects of knowledge creation’ (Blackman, Connelly & Henderson, 2004, p. 26).




Professionals with double-loop insights are potentially invaluable change agents, and also promising counterbalances for the organisational influence of less thoughtful managers and executives, many of whose ethics and trustworthiness has been called into question in recent years, with significant consequences for staff willingness to follow such leaders (Kest, 2006, p. 36).

Nevertheless, professionals must remain aware that their organisational power and prestige relies on continuous valued output or influence on other professionals, and on senior managers or executives, especially those controlling budgets (Snowden, 2000, pp. 246-247).

Drucker (2007, p. 292) asserts that professionals must work within organisational constraints, but nevertheless concedes a noblesse-oblige duty for professionals to become ‘broad humanists’ with ‘social responsibility’. What he does not mention explicitly is the power of professionals to influence and change the nature of organisational constraints.

In these contexts, the difference between managers and professionals, and even leaders, can be recognised as not based in titles, but in individual assessments of whether specific executives, managers, and professionals adhere to criteria of professionalism, and emerge as leaders.

Situational awareness and change management

In order for professionals to recognise their own potential within organisations, they cannot stay aloof from analysing all aspects of organisational structures, hierarchy, motivation, or strategic objectives. Nor can they be ignorant of management theory and how it is turned into practice.

Following Dunphy and Stace’s lead, cited in Smith (2011, p. 115), of focusing on a ‘contingency/situation analysis to change’, a multidimensional analytical tool that can assist is an adapted model of situational leadership theory (SLT) generalised across most of its variants. This model can be visualised as divided among four leadership dimensions associated as appropriate to four employee maturity dimensions (DeGraw & Sizoo, 2013, pp. 3.02-3.04). Figure 5, below, merges theory about transactional and transformational leadership styles and methods with SLT into a single graphical representation. SLT proposes that leaders switch styles to suit employee task focus and specific working situations (Blanchard, 2008, p. 19; Burke & Barron, 2014, p. 88; Cirstea, 2012, p. 54).

SLT and its variant theories have been critiqued as not objectively reliable or internally consistent (Graeff, 1997, pp. 164-167), and lacking empirical validation (Yukl & Rubina, 2010, p. 83). SLT is therefore proposed only as an analytical tool rather than a prescription for action.




Importantly, the adapted SLT model presented already encapsulated all the orthodox change management methods, summarised by Smith (2011, pp. 115-119) as principally derived from models by Kotter and Doppelt to emphasise:

  • Disrupting norms to establish urgency and creating an inspiring vision for the future (Firoozmand, 2014, p. 30; Smith, 2008, p. 26).
  • Communicating the vision repeatedly and consistently (Aiken & Keller, 2009, Creating a compelling story, paras. 1-13; Firoozmand, 2014, p. 29; Wissema, 2000, p. 83).
  • Rearranging feedback loops to encourage innovation and learning, including training (Aiken & Keller, 2009, Capability building, paras. 1-8).
  • Empowering staff to act on the vision by organising transition teams (Firoozmand, 2014, pp. 29-30; Umble & Umble, 2014, p. 18).
  • Planning for quick and visible improvements as incentive for sustained effort (Elrod & Tippett, 2002, p. 288).
  • Recognising and consolidating improvements to build credibility (Williams, 2009. p. 63).
  • Institutionalising new methods (Smith, 2011, p. 116).

Similar advice is repeated, re-phrased, and re-contextualised by many other authors, but mostly as a discrete approach rather than the recognition in SLT of a need for multiple, iterative, and situational approaches focusing on specific individuals and teams, not abstract concepts of non-specific change, organisations, or strategies. Such understandings are useful in also assessing organisational culture.

Organisational culture

Schein (2010, p. 22) argues that the ‘bottom line for leaders is that if they do not become conscious of the cultures in which they are embedded, those cultures will manage them.’ Hai and Mohamed (2011, p. 209) and Schein (2010, p. 3) propose that organisational culture and leadership are ‘two sides of the same coin’, and cannot be understood in isolation from each other.

Dull (2011, pp. 857-858) points out that some organisational culture theory is removed from practice by too much abstraction, though a ‘positivist’ school of thought aims at a ‘scientific approach’ to develop generalisable propositions. In the positivist tradition, Dauber, Fink and Yolles (2012, pp. 8-9) propose a ‘configuration’ model of organisational culture in which ‘strategies are put into effect’ through ‘operationalization’ of strategy imbued with culture, therefore reflecting that culture in the operational aspects of an organisation. In Figure 6, below, their model is overlayed with paths by which professionals might shift double-loop learning insights into operational layers of the organisation to create a strategic feedback loop back to executive management and strategy formulation.

This proposed influence on strategic planning and organisational culture addresses the problem of strategies being ‘detached from’ their ‘subjects’ (Mintzberg, 1994, p. 110) and therefore not being based ‘on the knowledge of the people in the organization who were closest to the core business activities’ (Vinzant & Vinzant, 1999, p. 527).




Problems in theory and practice

Management professor Henry Mintzberg, a prominent contributor to international management literature (Toma, 2008, pp. 118-119), is also among the sharpest critics of that literature, and of management education altogether, referring to it as corrupt from top to bottom, and decrying a culture of MBA-trained managers and accountants running organisations without understanding anything about them (Crittenden, Mintzberg, Ackoff, Khurana, Broughton, Hopper, & Hassett, 2009, para. 15).

Mintzberg is not alone. Harvard University management professor Rakesh Khurana acknowledges that MBAs teach overly simplified models that have led directly to the global financial crisis that began in 2007. He argues that courses teach abstractions of human behaviours not based on reality, creating leaders so corrupt they must be bribed with huge salary and bonus packages just to do their jobs (Crittenden, et al., 2009, paras. 16-18). That perspective is explained further by retired investment banker and author Will Hopper, who excoriates reducing human qualities and abilities to numbers according to engineering-based metrics, leading organisations to pursue numbers on balance sheets rather than quality or values (Crittenden, et al., paras. 44-49).

Director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, Kevin Hassett, regards MBA-trained managers who uncritically pursue numbers and theories to the detriment of values and society as a whole as narcissists who are ultimately ruinous influences on organisations (Crittenden, 2009, paras. 52-54).

Khurana argues that university education for managers has abandoned any kind of social contract linking the project of management to societal responsibilities wider than shareholder maximisation, which he regards, in itself, as a dishonest justification for the mercenary pursuit of personal enrichment (Crittenden, et al., paras. 93-98).

In that light, instead of deriving options for managing fear in change situations from theoretical models in the literature, what is proposed here is transcending all generalised theory by insisting on situation-specific, individual, iterative judgement about each concrete circumstance affecting individuals personally, or as part of a wider team. It is not options or solutions that are seen as possible, but only informed and professional judgement not reduced to a single method or outlook, instead infinitely flexible and adaptable in a manner that defies abstraction and generalisation.

This approach to managing fear is not focused on excising it from change efforts, but on approaching it with the humanist responsibility to society at large advocated decades ago by Drucker (2007. Pp. 331-337) as the essence of management, before the degradation of management theory and practice outlined above. In that sense, the proposition is a return to core Western values of integrity, honesty, and humanist conscience in all aspects of management theory and practice.

These values require not misrepresenting the true intentions of change, but seeking to humanise strategy by exerting an ethical influence on culture and strategy as well as on peers, and achieving outcomes derived from continuous assessment and judgement, not as the impersonal attainment of metricated goals.


Theory can play a significant part in expanding cognitive frameworks, but when it is taught in a paradigm that excludes all but numerical, economic proofs, it becomes an ideology of dehumanisation. In this light, and the context of the excoriating critiques of management theory presented above, it may be that contemporary academic methods have failed, by lack of courage or hard work, to develop a focus on, and methods. for assessing vital qualitative elements of management and professional practice. Such assessment should not ghettoise qualitative factors as adjunct ethical or social responsibility factors, the way they are discussed and exemplified in Lantos’s (2001) advocacy of corporate social responsibility programmes, or in Jin and Drozdenko’s (2010) reduction of ethics as mere performance enhancement variables. Instead, qualitative factors like ethics, integrity, and responsibility should play a major rôle in all aspects of theory that guides managerial and professional development and conduct.

The methods of assessing qualitative factors is seen as major lacuna in management theory that deserves significant extra attention and study, but it is acknowledged that major barriers to such efforts are represented by shallow and deterministic applications of academic endeavours to publish and teach only evidence-based theory. A first step, then, is the double-loop re-examination of how such approaches have displaced all but numerical, mechanistic, engineering-based approaches to developing and teaching theory, and what this implies for application of theory in practice by graduates lacking an understanding of such approaches as dehumanising and unsustainable.

Not to act towards embracing again qualitative imperatives is to invite repeating the mistakes of the past by producing managers, professionals, and leaders who drive organisations and entire societies to the brink of ruin. In that regard, it is useful to remember just how recently this is exactly what happened. Speaking of the global financial crisis, which began in 2007, and whose effects are still felt, Farlow (2013, p. 345) summarised the collective failure of many more than just financial managers that allowed it to occur:

<blockquote> … we hardly remember just how unfashionable, how utterly unacceptable, socially and professionally, it was to speak loudly of the dangers, and how the prevailing mood of the people, markets, business leaders and their educators, politicians, and the media, reassured and favoured those who ignored the risks, and made those who expressed their concerns feel like spoil-sports.</blockquote>


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