Why do people fear change and how to overcome it?

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Franklin D. Roosevelt

Added on 25 May 2016 by Andrew Day,Kevin Power

Why do we fear change

It’s perhaps become a cliché to say that people fear change. It does seem however that in many organizations a pervasive fear of change exists. This tends to manifest itself as resistance or opposition to change. Under these circumstances, leaders often experience that in spite of their best efforts to introduce change people do not seem to get it. It could be the most compelling proposition or something with a seemingly inconsequential impact, yet change seems difficult, slow or downright impossible. In practice, we know from research that around 70-80% of change efforts do not achieve their aims.

Faced with resistance, many leaders attempt to drive through changes. But as we can see in the image this can often deepen the resolve of the resistors and can lead to outcomes that are in nobody’s interest. In this case the resistance is easy to see. The analogy of this unfinished motorway¹ might be a caricature however the picture can be seen as a metaphor of what happens when people resist change.

How can we understand resistance and fear of change?

If leaders are going to enable the process of change in their organizations, then they need to understand why people fear change.  

In our experience, many leaders find themselves struggling with resistance without having a sense of what fears lie behind people’s resistance to change. Unfortunately, because people who are scared try to protect themselves and do not want to make themselves vulnerable, they do not say to their leadership: “we are scared of this change and what it represents”.  

But fear of what?  

From a psychological perspective, all change necessitates some form of loss. Whether it's having a child, getting promoted or losing one’s job. The fear of change therefore can be understood as a fear of ‘potential’ or ‘imagined’ loss. This could be:

  • Tangible losses such as income or time
  • Loss of control
  • Loss of status, power and influence
  • Loss of self-esteem or self-worth

It is important to note the distinction between ‘potential’ and ‘imagined’ losses. In many instances, our fears reflect our own neurotic anxieties rather than being grounded in what is actually happening to us. More often than not fear arises from the unknown and what we imagine might happen, rather than from the known. These are the ‘monsters in the dark’ of our childhood. Many of us, during periods of change, imagine outcomes or losses that have little likelihood of happening or if they do happen turn out to be far less damaging and hurtful that we imagined they would be at the time.  

Because of our fear of loss, most, potentially all, of us are ambivalent about change. The sociologist Peter Marris studied change in communities around the world and observed: “Whenever people suffered loss – even though they might also desire change – their reactions expressed an internal conflict, whose nature was fundamentally similar to the working out of grief”. It is not uncommon, for instance, to find that an executive feels depressed following promotion to a job they have aspired to get for many years. The promotion incurs many losses such the loss of an aspiration or goal which has now been achieved. The period of depressed mood is necessary for the loss to be recognized and accepted. Understandably such losses can be painful and we try to avoid them were possible.

Politics of Fear

A popular argument in the change literature, such as Kotter’s 8 step model, is that leaders at the start of a change process need to create a sense of urgency - the ubiquitous burning platform approach. Unfortunately, in many organizations we see a perverse form of burning platform which becomes a subtle or not so subtle coercion which creates a climate of fear in the organization. Leaders create an image of impending disaster and anyone who does not commit to change is seen as bad or mad. This in some way parallels what we can see happening in politics, with what has been named “the politics of fear”. For instance, the response by many politicians across Europe to the refugee crisis has been to exaggerate the threat posed by the refugees to legitimize turning them away from their borders. 

At best this approach to change induces widespread conformity.  Below the surface however, it amplifies levels of anxiety and fear, which rather than enabling change, tends to result in people avoiding risking taking and keeping their heads down.  

How can leaders help people overcome their fear of change?

If fear acts against change, then creating environments in which people feel safe to experiment, make mistakes and takes risks is unsurprisingly one of the most helpful things a leader can do. Our own research² into complex change in the UK’s National Health Service demonstrated that the degree of mutual trust in the part of the organization undergoing change was critical in determining the likelihood of success. We identified that trust shaped how a managers’ behavior and decisions were interpreted by different stakeholders and, likewise, shaped how managers interpreted the behavior and motives of staff and other stakeholders. In low trust environments, people feel insecure and act to protect their interests and avoid being vulnerable. 

Leaders who built trust:

  • Helped people to make sense of what was changing in their part of the organization and why
  • Openly and transparently shared information with staff and other stakeholders, even when the information was unlikely to be received favorably. This required managers to be explicit about what they knew and what they did not 
  • Listened to employees’ concerns and opinions. Research³ revealed that being listened to and treated with dignity and respect increases employees’ trust
  • Reframed changes to help staff understand how they could take control and influence the changes in their part of the system
  • Supported people to understand how they were experiencing and reacting to changes and helping them to prioritize activities

In 2008, we conducted another study⁴ into how executives were leading their organizations during the economic crisis. Our research revealed the important role leaders play in helping employees to contain their anxieties and fears during periods of uncertainty and change. This study revealed that leaders who helped people to address their anxieties and fears moved toward the fears rather than avoided them. They talked to people about their anxieties and concerns, helped people to make sense of events and encouraged people to focus on how they could help the situation rather than wait passively for something to happen. In doing this, they enabled people to feel a sense of control and influence about the future. They provided a sense of direction and instilled a sense of ‘hope’ and ‘confidence’ in the organization that by working together the ‘crisis’ could be addressed. This approach channeled people’s anxieties into productive action. They also created a ‘safe’ environment where people did not feel attacked or blamed for problems but were encouraged to take responsibility and act where they had influence. They maintained a narrative of possibility and focused on people’s strengths rather than highlighting people’s inadequacies.

Finally, in working with leaders to introduce organizational change for many years, we have noticed that those leaders who are able to contain people’s anxieties and instill a sense of hope, are able to contain their own fears and anxieties about change. This is not to say they do not experience fear in the face of change but more that they are able to recognize their feelings and not project them onto others. In contrast, those leaders who resort to ‘the politics of fear’ are often overwhelmed with anxiety and do not feel safe themselves. Leaders can therefore help others to address their fears, if they are able to confront their own fears and get help and support during periods of change so they feel able to help others. This help could take the form of a peer network, an executive coach, a supportive chairman or a supportive social network.  

If you are interesting in the topic of change take a look at our Masters in Organizational Change and our 3-day open program Leading Change and Growth.

¹ A duck farmer and his wife held out for 2 years in protest at the compulsory purchase of their property which had been their family home for decades.

² Day, a. and Lubitch, G. 'Mutual trust is essential for successful change: lessons from implementing NHS reforms'
³ Saunders, M. N. K. and Thornhill, A. (2003) Organisational justice, trust and the management of change: An exploration, Personnel Review, 32
No. 3, 360-375.
⁴ Power, K. & Day, A. (2009) In the thick of it: How are leaders and their organisations experiencing the economic crisis?, Converse, Issue 6, pp. 26 - 27, April