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Death by fear: how misunderstanding change can destroy growth

By L. Tyler Bushman

After several years of sleepless nights, hard work, and a tremendous amount of financial investment, I spent the day calling in one employee after the other to deliver the bad news. Our exclusive client had pulled funding and we no longer had the means to continue at the current capacity. Our product was powerful and many end users were still clamoring for our services. So why was I sitting in a room laying off half of our 100+ employees?

Fear of change.

Garth Alger was correct when he said, “We fear change.” It was not the employees we were laying off that feared the change of our new system. No, they had drunk the Kool-Aid. They were bought in. It was not the executives of our exclusive client either. They were writing the check. They had desired the change from their old system to our new system with enough gusto and excitement to make any startup happy. The real poison to the venture was the employee base of our client who was supposed be selling the system to the end user. Although our new system and process simplified work they were already doing, it was a change and an adjustment for them. A few began resisting the change, then a few more. The mandate came from above: “Use it or lose your job.” It only became worse. Small problems were blown out of proportion. Emails were copied and blind copied to every conceivable person, and the new and powerful system crashed down around them and us.

Why? What was missing? Why couldn’t the employees of our client see the value?

In their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath explore how our emotions have the ability to derail even the most positive changes. They compare change to the process of riding and attempting to direct an elephant. The elephant, they argue, is our emotional selves. It wields a remarkably powerful level of control over what we do and how we do it. Often, these actions are largely instinctual and subconscious, but they drive where we go. The rider who is attempting to direct the elephant is compared to our logical self. The one who knows where we should go and may even be able to keep us from danger. However, isn’t the problem is immediately apparent? The rider is so much smaller and weaker than the elephant. Eventually, all the logic in the world will lose out to the strength of emotion. Another potential problem that the rider faces is his or her lack of knowledge about where to go in the first place. As well intentioned as the logical rider may be, driving the emotional elephant becomes even more impossible when the rider has no idea where to go or no clear path. At this point, the rider may just decide that fighting is vain because even if the rider manages a small victory against emotion, where has it really gotten him or her?

As impossible as the situation above seems to be, there are some pretty compelling answers to the problems faced by people and organizations that know they need change but fear the battle and backlash. In order to really facilitate change, one has to appeal to both the rational side (the rider), and the emotional side (the elephant). Chip and Dan Heath list three fundamental keys to creating change in both people and organizations that I will list here.

  1. Direct the RiderIn order to really know how to best align with the emotional side of the brain, it is vital that the rational side has a clear direction. Direction and order appeal to the rational rider, so empowering the rider with direction will only serve to strengthen the resolve to change. To direct the rider, the Heath brothers suggest three things to consider.
    1. Follow the Bright Spots: Find out what is already working and copy it. There is no sense changing for the sake of change. If something is currently working and you duplicate it, the rational and logical part of the brain will light up and embrace the idea.
    2. Script the Critical Moves: Sometimes looking at a problem from too high an altitude can give one the wrong impression of what specific obstacles really exist. It is okay to list out specific behaviors and challenges to obtaining the desired goals.
    3. Point to the Destination: If you can see the end goal or the end destination, change becomes a more easily adopted practice. Because the logical and rational mind likes to problem solve, presenting change that has no definitive end can exhaust the rider before he or she even mounts the elephant.
  2. Motivate the ElephantBecause the emotional side of a person or a group of people is so powerful, it is imperative that they are moved to action in the same way that they are moved to inaction. What this means is that predominantly emotional being require fire to be fought with fire. Only emotion will trigger action. Force will not work and neither will logic, for both pale in comparison to the sheer size of emotion.
    1. Find the Feeling: Because this is the emotional side of the brain, simply knowing what must be done is not nearly enough to initiate change. However, when you make people feel something, they are far more likely to become motivated. As Simon Sinek stated, “People don’t care what you do, they care why you do it.”
    2. Shrink the Change: Large change spooks emotion. Because emotion cannot wrap its mind around the reason for the change (the logic), it begins to fear the change, and fear will lead to a negative emotional reaction. Gradual changes or gradual rollouts give the emotional mind time to see the change in small pieces and will help keep the emotional side engaged.
    3. Grow your People: If the people have a greater sense of personal identity and feel (there’s that word again) as though the change will support that identity, they will become motivated.
  3. Shape the Path
    1. Tweak the Environment: Changing the situation that we find ourselves in can be a primary cause for changing behavior. If we want the emotional and the logical to get along and work together, we have to place them in a situation and environment that is conducive to the change we hope to achieve.
    2. Build Habits: Habits help to calm fear by creating consistency and expectations. The problem with change is that it often takes things which have become habitual and removes or adjusts them. This can wreak havoc on the emotional mind and lead to fear which in turn will kill any new initiatives. Presenting changes along with a solid plan for habitual process will help alleviate the fear that comes from change.
    3. Rally the Herd: Finally, you must get buy-in from those who will be using the system. This is best accomplished by empowering your people to empower others. We are a tribal people by nature; we want to do what others are doing and we want to belong. It may do us well to understand that this same principle will be used by employees to kill new initiatives as well. The question is which direction do we want the herd to be headed?

Sources:

Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2010). Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. New York: Broadway Books.

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