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Overcoming People’s Fear of Change

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Overcoming People’s Fear of Change

By Doug Howardell


Implementing change in an organization, any organization, is a challenge. Challenge must be taken here to be an understatement. It’s an undertaking that fails more than it succeeds. The difficulty comes from two areas. The attempt to design a process that is better than the existing process, and the attempt to get people to accept and embrace the new process. Anybody who has attempted to implement significant change will tell you the latter, getting people to change, is the more difficult of the two.

fear of changeConventional wisdom says people fear change. That is not true. Most people like variety in their lives. They wear different clothes every day. They buy new clothes even though the old ones still fit. Lots of folks rearrange their furniture just to introduce a little variety in their lives. Many people like to go to new places on vacation. One time it’s north to colder climates, next it’s south to some place warm. We like to go places that are different from where we live everyday. If we live in the city, we may be likely to vacation in the country. If we live in the country, we want to see the big city. Change in everyday life is considered good. Why, then, do we believe that change in our work is bad?

It’s because many of us fear the unknown. We are afraid that the proposed change may involve loss. We may lose power, prestige, or position. We may fear loss of our ability to perform our assigned tasks. We may fear losing our place in the group, as an accepted member of the community of our fellows. When we perceive this potential loss, maybe even loss of our job itself, we feel threatened. It is this threatening change that we fear.

Test this idea in yourself. If you thought that your company or customers were going to change in such a way that everything you learned in school or through experience was no longer of any use, how would you feel? Everything you’ve done in the past is of no value to you now. THEY are giving you one week to learn the new way of doing things or else. Would you feel good about the change? Would you help implement that change? Or would you do everything in your power to slow the implementation down? Now, how would you feel if your company or customers were changing in a way that guaranteed you a promotion, a raise, a bigger office and more time off? Would you now help to implement that change? If you’re like me and most other folks, in the first case you’d be afraid. Afraid for your job, afraid for your lifestyle the job affords you, afraid for your sense of accomplishment and you sure as heck wouldn’t help implement the change. In the second case you would feel completely the opposite.

When we feel threatened, we resist change. We fight it as if our very life depended on stopping it. Change resisted is change delayed. Change delayed may be change denied. While most changes we attempt to implement in the work place do not have the clear, obvious consequences laid out in the above example, people will make up their minds about the change as if it were that straightforward. In the absence of clear evidence of positive personal benefit, most people will assume negative consequences. That is why so many people resist all change in their jobs. To be successful in implementing change we must understand that resistance and know how to overcome it. It’s as simple and as vastly complicated as that.

So, how do we overcome people’s resistance to change? Three steps: Understand the nature of that fear; identify the specific reaction to the fear; apply the tool that corresponds to that reaction.

Understanding the Nature of Fear

The first step we already covered briefly. People do not fear all change. We fear change that we, rightly or wrongly, perceive threatens us. We fear change when we believe it threatens our sense of belonging, our sense of our ability to participate and contribute, our feeling that we have some control over our lives. Caldwell Williams of Management by Inclusion, MBI, calls the overall feeling we’re describing as “Inclusion”. He says that Inclusion is a basic need of every human being. It is our need to feel that we belong to a group; that our abilities and perceptions are taken seriously and are not discounted; that we have some control over our environment. We fear change when our sense of inclusion is threatened.

Let’s look at the example of implementing a new computer system, say a new ERP system. Implementing a new ERP system will change everything; how our work is performed and how we interact with others inside and outside our department. It may require new skills. It may make some of our existing skills obsolete. Given that, it would not be unlikely that we may fear the change. We may fear that we will suffer a loss of power or control when the new system is implemented. We may fear that our hard earned experience and knowledge will be obsolete. We may worry that we won’t be able to learn or use the new system or that we won’t be able to keep up with the already overwhelming workload. We may even fear that all of the above may cause the loss of our job which leads to losing our home and that may lead to the loss of our family. Sound extreme? Yes, it’s meant to, but some people may take it that far in their minds.

We react in one of two ways when we feel a change threatens us. The first position reaction to threatening change is fight or flight. The second is surrender. The first position reaction is overt and visible. People who fight resist at every opportunity. They disrupt meetings. They are vocally negative to every idea. They may do whatever is opposite to the direction of the change. They give you all kinds of reasons why IT won’t work. People who resist through flight may just not show up. They miss meetings and appointments. They find all kinds of excuses why something else is more important. If they do show up, they are late. When they’re there, they are distracted. They may not pay attention, drifting to thoughts of their own or doing other work when they should be focusing on the issues at hand.

People who use the second position, surrender, become the pitiful victim. They talk about what others are doing to them, how forces beyond their control are pulling the strings and affecting their lives. They blame, point fingers, and do nothing proactive.

We inhibit the ability of the change to go forward when we adapt either of the first two positions. Whether we are resisting or surrendering, we are not contributing. Our ability to learn is greatly reduced or is nonexistent, and we are certainly not developing creative solutions to the issues arising around the implementation of the new methods. When resisting or surrendering, we take no responsibility for producing positive results. The implementation of the change will be delayed and maybe destroyed if even one key person takes either of the first two positions.

Reactions to Change

When we understand where fear of change comes from and how it manifests itself, we are ready for the second step in overcoming resistance. In the second step we learn to identify specific behaviors that are the reactions to pending change. There is a range of reactions to change. These vary from specific styles of resisting to outright embracing of change. Understanding these behaviors is critical so we can progress to the third and crucial step where we address the behavior using specific tools.

Reactions to change can be broken down into six specific behaviors.

  1. Hidden Agenda
  2. Adversary
  3. Uncertainty
  4. Emergent
  5. Normal
  6. Abundance/Empowerment

These reactions represent a continuum of behavior. We tend to start at the low end and, with help and guidance, work our way to the higher level reactions. Each of the reactions has typical behaviors that we can observe. Our job, as the person reacting to the change or as the change agent, is to observe the behavior, classify the reaction and apply the corresponding tool that helps us or others move up the scale.

The first reaction is to develop a hidden agenda. The person with a hidden agenda has a plan or idea that they aren’t revealing. They may want to stop the project all together or protect some sacred cow. Whatever is hidden, they work behind the scenes to impede progress. Look for someone who’s attitude is sullen, suspicious, or apathetic. Typically someone with a hidden agenda would conspire with like minded others to bring about the results they desire. If they were in a position of power, they might threaten others to get them to go along with their ideas.

The second reaction to threatening change is to become an adversary. Someone who has chosen this reaction will attack at every opportunity. Nothing is right. Nothing will work. Every new idea is impossible. This is a step up from hidden agenda because they are at least out in the open. These people are easy to spot. They act arrogant, hostile, defiant or contemptuous.

When we get past being an adversary, we become uncertain. We are sure we are right and that we know what we’re talking about when we are working our hidden agenda or when we are openly hostile. We become uncertain of what is true when we are willing to admit that there might be a better way. This is a positive first step. If we admit we don’t know then we are open to other ways. But we also can’t get stuck in uncertainty. We must move past this stage if we are going to be positive contributors. People who are uncertain are indecisive and act evasive. You can’t get an answer from them. They tend to deflect questions and avoid making decisions. They infringe on others, asking for help or constantly questioning. Uncertain people are slowing down the implementation of the change by not fully contributing to its forward progress.

If we can move past uncertainty we get to Emergent. Here the possibilities are starting to become clear to us. New ideas and thoughts are drifting to the surface. We aren’t clear yet so when we are in the emergent stage we may appear cautious or distant as we explore new ground. We require time to think about things before offering an opinion. This is a great improvement if we started in hidden agenda or adversary but we can move further along the continuum and become more positive and productive.

Normal is the reaction of someone fully engaged in helping implement the change. In this stage we appear cheerful and admiring of others who support the desired ends. We are clear on what needs to be done and how to get there. We are productive. We may even take a role in facilitating the change when we have evolved to Normal.

Abundance/Empowerment is the highest stage in our reaction to change. We welcome change and are enthusiastic about it because we see the opportunities change brings. We reach out to others and help them make the transition. When we feel abundant we share what we know and what we learn. Feeling empowered ourselves, we seek to empower others.

It can be a long journey from having a hidden agenda to feeling abundant and empowered. We need to take it one step at a time. If we are trying to make the journey ourselves, we would do well to seek guidance and support from others. If we are trying to help others evolve we need to know what to do to overcome the obstacles that keep people locked in the lower ends of the scale. The following tools are designed to be applied to the specific reactions. Remember the first step is to identify the reaction, then select and apply the corresponding tool.

For the complete article, including tips on implementing the tools for change, go to