‘Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.’ ∼  Mark Twain, author

Our experience suggests that fear is rife in many organisations. As the body’s primeval response to perceived threat, fear is a protective, adaptive response. Yet in the context of the workplace it can quickly become debilitating and demotivating. Feeling fearful can have a major impact on our work performance, as well as our mental and physical health.

As a response to organisational change, fear has many faces: fear of loss of certainty, status, position, favour, fortune, job and identity. Too much fear makes us nervous, stressed and anxious. Too little fear makes us invulnerable, inauthentic and untouchable.

Given that people experiencing fear say that silence often feels to be the only viable response, and knowing that fear is usually a taboo subject in organisational life, what are we as Change Agents to do?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Part of the courage we need to exhibit as Change Agents is the willingness to speak truth to power about the prevailing environment and how people experience organisational culture, and – critically – what impact this will have on the ultimate success of change efforts. If we are able to secure deep, authentic Sponsorship for a different approach to managing change – or perhaps any Sponsorship at all – we then have the painstaking task, collectively, of cultivating the environment we want and need to see. Information flowing freely, upwards and sideways as well as downwards. Messages given honestly, not edited to please or appease. Questions asked, and answered, in good faith. So what might that take? Here are some thoughts starters:
    • Pay exquisite attention to what enables – and disables – people from speaking up and out. Then strengthen what enables, and start work to disable the disablers.
    • Explore different communication channels – and what really works. Well-constructed intranet? Desk drops? Notice boards in the tea room? Online social networking? Brown bag lunches? Use multiple channels and remember the power of face-to-face.
    • Establish feedback loops for whatever communication channels you employ so you can understand what’s working and recast your approach as needed. Are you seeing changes in people’s behaviour? Greater willingness to talk and contribute? Real conversations about the things that matter?
  • Delta ChaosThink of your change work as being to create ‘bounded uncertainty’ for people. Uncertainty is an inevitable part of change – and a well-recognised psychological stressor. What, as a Change Agent, might you do to bound or contain people’s fears and anxieties? Here are some ideas:
    • Design and communicate a robust process for engagement that people can trust. Even when answers are not forthcoming, people appreciate knowing how things will be figured out, by who and what part they can play.
    • Communicate a powerful vision of the future. Include a compelling, motivationally rich story about why you’re changing.
    • Support people to access positive emotional states – such as passion, hope and confidence. You’ll find the emotion-based energy that is created enables people to move beyond fear, to work creatively, take risks, engage effectively with others and find a way past difficulties.
    • Make clear to people the resources that are available and how they can access them.
    • Include opportunities for people to talk about their experiences; it helps with sense-making and facilitates connection between people.
  • Take the time to understand the true nature of fear – and help others do the same. In Western societies we have tended to equate fear with danger and in doing so have lost our appreciation for the unknown. Fear is the emotional force we are most afraid of yet we need fear to: find solutions and pathways if none are known to us; be creative; experience adventure; go beyond boundaries; and, grow beyond ourselves.  Unless we are willing to experience something other than fear as ‘terrible’, we can’t leave known territory. To know fear as a power – and experience its strength – we need the courage and willingness to feel it and enter unknown areas.
  • FeeltheFearSupport people to Feel the fear and do it anyway. In her book of the same title, Susan Jeffers exhorts us to move from a position of pain (helplessness, depression, paralysis) to a position of power (choice, energy, action). “It’s terrible” becomes “It’s a learning experience”. “It’s a problem” becomes “It’s an opportunity”. “Life’s a struggle” becomes “life’s an adventure”. By truly taking responsibility for our life we put ourself in a position of power and increase our ability to handle the fear we experience. Could be a great resource to help people through tricky times…
  • Finally, in the presence of fear we can easily get caught up or find ourselves destabilised in significant ways. By growing our capacity to find our own centre we can stay strong, dignified and effective. Here are two great resources:
    • LEBookCoverWendy Palmer and Janet Crawford’s book Leadership Embodiment: How the way we sit and stand can change the way we think and speak provides a neat introduction to centered leadership with practical exercises and an exploration of the science behind the practice.
    • For anyone interested in a straightforward mindfulness based approach to being centered – with great online tools – we’d recommend Andy Puddicombe’s Headspace (the New York Times say he’s doing for meditation what Jamie Oliver has done for food).

‘Fear doesn’t shut you down; it wakes you up.’ ∼ Veronica Roth, author of Divergent