Talking About Change: Reducing Fear

This post was written by Hannah Morris, Director of Facilitation & Evaluation at The Latimer Group. 

Our organizations and teams are undergoing more change than ever before. Some are large-scale organizational transformations, others are small-scale process shifts, but we are all feeling the impact of change.

Adaptability to change is becoming essential – both for organizations and for individuals.

Even more so since most change efforts fail. This is not necessarily for lack of good intention, effective strategy, or even potential benefit. Often it is because change agents ignore the importance of the communication of change.

For a change effort to truly succeed from introduction through implementation to ultimate institutionalization – at any level of the organization – it needs employee commitment and support. And this is hard to achieve when the idea of change itself can bring fear and threat.

Successful change agents communicate in a way that not only demonstrates the need and value of the change, and motivates action and engagement, but proactively reduces feelings of threat and fear.

Let’s consider the four types of fear that are created in moments of change** and specific strategies for mitigating them:

  1. Fear of change failure – If employees fear that the invested time, effort, and resources will not yield success and be “worth it”, they will have a hard time getting on board with a change. They may give up or even act against the effort. To combat this, change agents need to convince their audiences that the effort can actually succeed. Examples of how this type of change has worked – eliminated waste and created value – in another area of the organization or in another organization all together can inspire hope and faith that it will prevail. Furthermore, reminding teams of times when they have faced and succeeded through challenge in the past can also rally collaborative spirits and commitment.
  1. Fear of partial awareness – If employees feel that they are not getting the whole story and suspect being kept in the dark, they can easily resort to back-channel communication, such as gossip and rumor, to fill the void. We can imagine all the ways that can end badly. Change agents need to provide enough communication – in volume and frequency – to help their workforce feel informed and fully aware. This can happen in a combination of written and verbal communication, but needs to be consistent and comprehensive.
  1. Fear of personal loss – If employees feel that they may lose time, independence, status, responsibility, job, or identity as a result of a change, they will struggle to support it. Change agents should focus their communication not only on the collective value of the change, but on the individual benefit as well. How will this save them time and make their jobs easier? Taking that a step further, change agents should speak to what will change while also emphasizing what will stay the same to anchor their teams in a feeling of continuity.
  1. Fear of inadequate support – If employees feel that they will be left to manage the adjustment to change on their own, they may feel helpless and frustrated. They may fear that this will make the transition even more burdensome. Change agents should verbalize their commitment to supporting their teams, highlight available resources, and emphasize the collective effort as a shared experience, remembering that it is through communication that we make others feel seen, valued, heard, and supported.

If you are an agent of change, or a participant, take an extra minute or two to reflect on the impact communication has in the efforts you’re engaged in. By addressing these fears proactively, and intentionally, we can make it easier for employees to embrace change and become champions of it themselves.

If you have a story to share, please send us a line. We are always eager to hear your experiences and insights.

** Luo, Wenhao & Song, Jiwen & Gebert, Diether & Zhang, Kai & Feng, Yunxia. (2016). How does leader communication style promote employees’ commitment at times of change? Journal of Organizational Change Management (29) pp. 242-262

At The Latimer Group, we believe that great communication skills can change the world. We transform people and organizations with simple, repeatable techniques and mindsets. We teach persuasive communication skills through an integrated platform of corporate training, coaching, and eLearning. To learn more about how we can transform your organization, e-mail us at info@TheLatimerGroup.com

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Hannah Morris

A book about change

The Latimer Corporation’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.