Why we fear change, and how to overcome it

08 April 2016 -


The fear of change is clear to see in the business world. Here, we explore the psychology behind this fear and what tools managers can use to make a change programme a success

Guest bloggers Andrew Day and Kevin Power

It’s perhaps become a cliché to say that people fear change.

It does seem however that in many organisations a pervasive fear of change exists, tending to manifest itself as resistance or opposition to change.

Under these circumstances, a leader’s experience is often that, in spite of their best efforts to introduce change, people just don’t 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, this often deepens 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 motorway might be a caricature, but 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 organisations 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 scarred 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 is 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.

During periods of change, many of us imagine outcomes or losses that have little likelihood of happening or, if they do happen, turn out to be far less damaging and hurtful than 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 that has now been achieved.

The period of depressed mood is necessary for the loss to be recognised and accepted; understandably such losses can be painful and we therefore try to avoid them where possible.

Politics of Fear

A popular argument in the change literature, such as Kotter’s eight-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, we see in many organisations a perverse form of ‘burning platform’ that becomes a subtle or not so subtle coercion, which creates a climate of fear in the organisation.

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 legitimise 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 keeping their head down and avoid taking risks.

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 research into complex change in the UK’s National Health Service demonstrated that the degree of mutual trust in the part of the organisation undergoing change was critical in determining the likelihood of success.

We identified that trust shaped how a manager’s behaviour and decisions were interpreted by different stakeholders and, likewise, shaped how managers interpreted the behaviour and motives of staff and other stakeholders.

In low trust environments, people feel insecure and act to protect their interests and avoid being vulnerable.

Our research showed that leaders who build trust invariably:

Helped people to make sense of what is changing in their part of the organisation and why:

  • Openly and transparently shared information with staff and other stakeholders, even when the information is unlikely to be received favourably. This requires managers to be explicit about what they know and what they do not know;
  • Listened to employees’ concerns and opinions. Research revealed that being listened to and treated with dignity and respect increases employee trust;
  • Reframed changes to help staff understand how they can take control and influence the changes in their part of the system; and
  • Supported people to understand how they are experiencing and reacting to changes and helping them to prioritise activities.

Andrew Day and Kevin Power work for Ashridge Executive Education

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