Eliminating Your Company’s Fear of Change

Eliminating Your Company’s Fear of Change

It seems like this week is the week to argue with bloggers over at Harvard Business Review. May latest read was Cure Your Company’s Allergy to Change by Brad Power. I don’t think fear of change is a structural issue. It is a behavioral and philosophical issue.

Let me just focus on the list at the end of his post, which starts with the statement:

Several lessons on how to achieve meaningful cultural change and associated operating performance improvements run through successful efforts at health insurance companies Aetna and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan:

And then follows on with the following three points:

  • Organizational realignment
  • Improvement methods
  • Employee Engagement

Throughout the article, Brad explores company culture. In his health insurance company example he posits the following:

“At several off-sites, they talked about culture, and people spoke their minds.”

“Just about everyone in the company agrees the culture is dysfunctional, with various layers to the problems”

Talking about culture doesn’t change it. Talking about policy and practice changes culture. Culture is shaped, as I put forth in Management by Design, by the actions and behaviors of the organization. A policy that isn’t enforced influences culture. A practice that thrives outside of policy also influences culture. Every manager and every employee, along with various partners, co-create culture. If you want to eliminate fear, you have to eliminate the behaviors that create and reinforce fear.

Organizational structure, as Brad points out, begets incentive structure. Eliminating fear of change comes not from incentives, but by giving permission. I have talked with dozens of people about why they left their previous employers. Most the time it isn’t about incentives, but about ideas that don’t fit, risks that are taken, respect that isn’t offered. The way an organization nurtures, accepts and ultimately implements change at the cultural level creates a great moment of self-reflection, but it does little more than develop awareness of an abstract. It is not until people start acting differently, letting people take risks with new ideas, actively engaging in dialog around hard questions that expose underlying false assumptions, or offering deeper transparency into decision making, that the organization can create a new culture. Culture is a big abstract thing, but it isn’t design on high and trickled down. Culture is a million tiny acts by line managers and employees that emerge and merge into a structure of interlocking experiences that tell employees, and customers, and partners, what an organization is and stands for.

Brad also mentions improvement methods like “agile” or “lean” which again, are abstract notions that mean little unless applied in the right way. And those ideas are far from equivalent. Agile means to adapt and change as change occurs. Lean means to operate with as few resources as necessary to get the job done within the parameters of the service level agreement. I believe that lean can be a change, but it cannot lead to change. Organizations that want to innovate, or adapt to change, need, like the human genome, some parts of the chromosome that have the flexibility to mutate. Organizations that are too “lean” often loose their ability to navigate change because they don’t have any resources than can be redirected without affecting quality or time-to-delivery.

And that takes us back to behavior—in this case, hiring behavior. Many organizations today are in the grips of the fear lingering from the great recession. They don’t hirer extra workers because of the “fear” that they might need to lay them off again. That fear is driving behavior, from hiring practices to planning. People are choosing to be lean in order to avoid the discomfort of letting people go again. That fear is also stopping them from brining in new ideas, developing a diversity of thought and investing in non-core businesses that may offer strategic advantage in the future. Fear of change has become a national problem.  And rather than create incentives for people to change, we need to give them permission to innovate, to assert themselves and to create new value.

If you want to engaged, fearless employees, start with respect for their experience, listen and learn from them, and give them permission to pursue their passions—along with permission to learn from failure. The most fearless athletes gain their confidence from failure, not from coddling. Respected and empowered employees will be engaged, and the company will likely benefit not just from the retention of the employee, but from the enthusiasm they spread and the value they create. Stop intellectualizing management, culture and innovation when it comes to eliminating fear, and start recognizing that you, and your people co-create the work experience, and its time to take an active role, not a passive one, in the details of that experience.


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Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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