The Psychology of Fear of Change: Unpacking Organizational Resistance

Understanding and Overcoming Fear of Change in the Workplace

The fear of change is a major driver of resistance to change and change failure.

It’s a human emotional state that takes much more than rational thought and logical persuasion to manage.

But what exactly is it, and how can an organisation and its leaders and managers help their employees overcome their fears during each stage of change?

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What is Fear of Change?

By its very nature, organisational change creates uncertainty. This triggers fear and anxiety of change in the workplace, causing people to become anxious, stressed, depressed, and feel fatigued.

Fear can paralyze a person’s willingness to cooperate in the change process, and cause them to resist change.

Within organisations undergoing change, individual and group fear is quickly transformed into resistance to change. Left unchecked, this resistance can scupper even the most meticulously planned change initiatives. There is much empirical evidence to support this. For example:

  • In its 2017 Financial Services Change Survey, Accenture found that 74% of executives they interviewed said that fear of change was one of the greatest obstacles to change.
  • In its report, ‘How to build an agile foundation for change’, PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) notes that, “Research shows that nearly 75 percent of all organisational change programs fail, not because leadership didn’t adequately address infrastructure, process, or IT issues, but because they didn’t create the necessary groundswell of support among employees.” In other words, they failed to help employees overcome their fear of change, and the resultant resistance to change caused it to crash.

“Research shows that nearly 75 percent of all organisational change programs fail, not because leadership didn’t adequately address infrastructure, process, or IT issues, but because they didn’t create the necessary groundswell of support among employees.”

‘How to build an agile foundation for change’,

PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC)

Why do Employees Fear Change?

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs security and safety are among the six basic needs of humans. Uncertainty removes this. Leadership psychologist Tony Robbins agrees, citing certainty as the first of six human needs in his theory of Human Needs Psychology.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

A small number of employees thrive on change. Uncertainty gives them an adrenaline rush that pushes them to achieve. However, for the majority of human beings, change is seen as challenging at best and impossible at worst.

Failure of change projects is often blamed on bad management of change. But it is not the implementation of change that is managed badly, it is the poor management of people’s fear – the beating heart of resistance to change.

When change happens in the workplace, your employees may fear for their jobs. They fear that they will fail at new processes and procedures. They fear they will lose their position and that their next new job or role will require skills that they don’t possess. They fear that the old ways of working will disappear, or that they will lose their status, or that they will no longer be working with trusted colleagues.

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What Fears are Associated with Fear of Change in the Workplace?

To manage change effectively, you must help people overcome their normal fear of of change. The starting point is to understand the standard stages and fears people tend to experience during organisational change.

  • Fear of the Unknown

Some employees will be enthusiastic supporters of change. At the other end of the scale, some will fear change so much that it panics them.

The predictability of their daily tasks, their job, professional life and even their career has disappeared. The way they used to do things has been altered. “Why fix what isn’t broken?” they will ask.

If people know little about the change, the unknown of change will loom large over their emotional state, and the more intense fear of change they will experience.

  • Fear of Failure

This is often the most deeply hidden of all fears. People don’t like to admit that they fear failing. They don’t wish to admit their irrational fear and anxiety that they may lack the skills to undertake tasks and activities now asked of them. They may be afraid that they won’t be able to transition to new ways of working.

Such fears will often manifest in resistance to change. They will be unwilling to try new methods. Their fear of failure compels reluctance to adapt new city, and learn new situations, and they will ‘agitate’ to resist change at every opportunity.

  • Fear of Loss

The fear of loss can not be attributed to a fear of a single loss. It is a complex web of other potential outcomes of loss that drives this fear. People may be fearful of losing their jobs, their salaries (or overtime, commissions, or bonuses), their colleagues, or even their bosses.

Your people once felt in control of their own destiny. Change takes this away:

  • They might no longer do things the way they have always been done
  • They may be asked to work in a different team, with a new boss
  • They may hear rumours of redundancies

All these potential events accumulate in the mind and cause fear extreme anxiety and even panic attacks.

  • Fear of Upsetting Others

Many people are fearful of upsetting others, but during a period of change this fear is often heightened. People fear if they upset others then they will be in the spotlight, and that this may put their jobs toxic relationships at risk.

Such fears lead to reticence to engage in any sort of conflict. People who are extremely afraid of upsetting others will hold back on ideation fearing change. They won’t express their views or opinions openly. This can lead to frustration within individuals and cause the change project to fall short of its real potential.

  • Fear of Leaving a Comfort Zone

Especially in long-serving employees, the fear of leaving their comfort zone is very real. They do things the they have always done them. They have worked with colleagues so long they can almost finish each other’s sentences. They understand how their boss works, and what is required of them.

Organisational change removes their perceived safety net. Suddenly, they have a multitude of worries:

  • Will they get on with their new boss?
  • Will they be able to work as effectively as previously?
  • Will their new colleagues accept them into the team?

They must answer all such questions, often without their old, support system and network around them. That’s scary for most people.

  • Self-doubt

Self-doubt is a driver of many of the fears of change mentioned above. It leads to people questioning whether they can do something well enough – or even at all. This lack of confidence causes panic, a sense of loss of control, and a fear of failure.

Self-doubt forces people to maintain the status quo, preferring to remain in their comfort zone and not test themselves. It encourages procrastination, inhibits personal growth, and impedes organisational progress.

Self-doubt is often caused by past life experiences, comparisons with others, and fear of failure.


How to Handle Employees’ Fears in an Organisation

Neither an organisation nor its leaders and managers can afford to leave their employees’ mental illness and health professional fears unmanaged. A culture of change must be created and maintained.

The starting point to create a positive change culture is to measure and understand your current organisational culture. You’ll need to determine your desired values and business strategy, and align your desired culture to these.

Get your people involved with the changes you propose. Encourage participation in ideation, problem solving, and brainstorming as you build the new culture.

Positivity surrounding change permeates from the top down. High level sponsors role model new behaviours and demonstrate their commitment to change.

Make sure to coach leaders and managers in people management skills, and messages should be delivered openly and honestly. Communicate the change at every opportunity – in one-on-one’s, team meetings, organisational briefings, and so on – using language that resonates with teams and individuals.

Finally, be constantly aware of the emotional response to the new culture and change within the organisation – manage fears. Here are eight pointers to help your organisation do this.

factor of resistance table

1. Acknowledge the Change

It’s crucial that your employees acknowledge the change in a way that helps them overcome their fear of failure. The first of John Kotter’s 8-step change management process tackles this through the creation of a sense of urgency.

To do this, leaders and managers discuss the future vision and the benefits of executing change. These discussions include the risks of doing nothing decision making, and remaining in the status quo.

Personalise the risks and benefits, create excitement about the possibilities moving forward, and empower employees in the creation of the change roadmap.

2. Acknowledge your Fears

The first step to overcoming fear is to acknowledge that you are, in fact, scared. By helping people openly discuss their fears, managers can open a dialogue which puts fear in perspective by asking them what would happen their everyday lives if the event they fear happened. Doing so, you can create plans to deal with legitimate downsides while anticipating the upside.

Many fears of change in the workplace exist because of a risk-averse culture. Mistakes are punished, and so experimentation and innovation are stifled.

Change is more readily accepted in a culture that is flexible, adaptable and informal. This is a place where employees are encouraged to take risks and not fear failure. Instead of punishing mistakes, all employees are incentivised to be entrepreneurial, creative, and to contribute.

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Want to learn how to deal with the fear of change in real-time? Download my eBook The Fundamentals of Change Management to find out how.
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Plus: Get Access to my Free 7 part Email Course on “Introduction to Leading Change.”

3. Stop Worrying

People will worry. When they do so while working, it disrupts focus and flow. Productivity falls, and progress toward goals is stifled.

Make time for people to discuss their fears outside of the normal work routine. Use this time to help people overcome these fears and instil a culture in which work times are when people get their work done and achieve results.

You’ll find that morale improves as the positive outcomes and results are experiences, helping to reduce worry – but you must acknowledge that worry exists and remove it from employees’ thoughts to improve productivity.

4. Accept your Feelings and Seek Support if Needed

Traditionally, organisations have operated in hierarchical structures, in which roles are based on levels of management. In these, people naturally turn to their supervisors and managers for support. During periods of change, these strong support system structures are often disrupted – either by design or by consequence.

It is an imperative that employees understand that support exists for them, and that they are encouraged to always seek professional support through the emotional journey of change.

There will be feelings of discomfort as people cope with life changes and with loss. Good change management acknowledges this, and encourages people to talk to managers, colleagues, partners, friends, family member and others to gain the support they need.

5. Communicate, Communicate, and Communicate

Morale and performance improve when people feel they are part of something – that they are creating change and not being subjected to it. To feel a part well being part of something bigger, you must understand it. The challenge for organisations is how do they empower the understanding that creates a family pulling in one direction.

The answer is by employing an effective communication strategy. In its report ‘How do we manage the change journey?’, McKinsey & Company identifies two-way communication as key, using the following communication strategies:

  • Ensue that leaders understand how it feels to hear the change story for the first time before retelling it
  • Make the message stick by repeating in simple, clear, and concise language
  • Move from telling to asking, getting people involved in change by proactively asking for opinions and ideas
  • Use many channels to communicate and reinforce messages

Finally, ask people to explain the change themselves to confirm that they understand its aims and benefits and can contextualise their fears and concerns.

6. Be Positive

Fear is a negative emotion given birth from negativity. Therefore, it is crucial that change managers and change sponsors remain positive even if things should go awry.

When communicating about change, change managers seek to create positive scenarios and encourage their people to share their negative thoughts. Managers can then compose real-life examples to demonstrate how similar change has been handled successfully previously.

Encouraging people to think of times when they navigated change in big life changes the past is an ideal way to tap into reservoirs of resilience people already have. This helps to overcome their current negative thoughts by realising how they overcame challenges before to achieve their professional and personal goals.

By helping employees to make valuable comparisons like this, managers will help them to overcome their fears and remain positive. Even when the going gets tough.

7. Have Flexibility

In their article ‘Changing change management’ for McKinsey & Company, Boris Ewenstein, Wesley Smith, and Ashvin Sologar say that organisations

“are being forced to adapt and change to an unprecedented degree: leaders have to make decisions more quickly; managers have to react more rapidly to opportunities and threats; employees on the front line have to be more flexible and collaborative. Mastering the art of changing quickly is now a critical competitive advantage.”

Employees who realise the potential of developing skills and gaining a wider experience in terms of their own career advancement will be more flexible and adaptable.

“Mastering the art of changing quickly is now a critical competitive advantage.”

Similarly, change managers who are flexible with their people are more likely to encourage participation in change.

8. Get Involved in the Change

Turning to the hierarchical nature of many organisations again, this is not conducive to people being co-creators of change. Yet, as an organisation, you want people to be active participants and collaborate in the change project – people tend not to destroy what they create.

This is present moment where managers must be at their most proactive, getting people involved by proposing committees and enlisting participants with diverse skills and backgrounds to help drive the change. These committees not only empower people in the change process, but provide exceptional opportunities to reinforce the rationale for the change and dispel fears that employees may have.

Manage Fear of Change to Promote Positivity During Change

If mismanaged, the fear of change in the workplace can lead to the resistance that cascades causing change projects to fail.

Successful change only happens when people’s values and beliefs align with those of the organisation. It is imperative that people are aligned with the vision and objectives of change. They won’t do this if they are crippled by fear. Therefore, it is necessary for change leaders to manage the human side of the change journey.

Strategic Alignment

Only by understanding what makes people fearful of change can you develop the strategies to manage those fears. And only then with professional help can you eliminate the inevitable resistance to change that follows, if fear of change is mismanaged or, worse ignored.


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