Authored By: Mikel J. Harry, Ph.D.
One thing is for sure, we have all experienced fear at one time or another. We intimately understand that fear can be a powerful force in determining the choices we make. Generally speaking, we recognize that the proverbial “fear factor” can serve to protect or debilitate us. On the flip side of this, we’ve all seen cases where fear is at the root of inducing irrational resistance to beneficial change, owing to such things as an overactive imagination or the need to embrace tradition and routine.
When it comes to cultural change in the workplace, the biggest problem corporations face is not the change itself, but the fear of change, not just on a personal level, but on a social level as well. The impact of fear extends far beyond what initially meets the eye. For example, fear is often unwittingly transmitted from the workplace to the home-front in terms of how a worker’s family feels about their current financial security and future well-being. In a nutshell, the stealthy and debilitating role of the “fear factor” can wreak havoc in many ways, especially when it comes to personal and team productivity.
When fear finds its way into the workplace, it can quickly spread like an epidemic. It has the power to distort information, generate rumors, disrupt informal channels of communication and induce a sense of distrust in the organization’s leadership. As fear spreads, people begin to suspend their critical thinking, bypass crucial discussions and stick to the company line.
Fear can cause the inadvertent misalignment of personal values to those of the company. For example, many people highly value other people’s perspectives and ideas, not just those that constitute “the company way.” However, fear is so powerful, it can force them into an unwanted state of conformity and uniformity. It can even cause us to support outdated conventions, policies and procedures. Eventually, fear is morphed into distrust, not just of the “system,” but our leaders as well — even our peers. Perhaps now it is easy to see why fear drives out faith and faith drives out fear.
Nonetheless, stepping out from behind one’s shield to embrace change represents risk; and it naturally follows that risk is related to fear. Hence, as long as risk is present, change will be viewed in the light of fear and; therefore, consequentially resisted. The bigger the change, the greater the perceived risk. As the perceived risk increases, the resistance to change increases. To overcome the perceived consequences of risk, fear must be transformed into trust — a tall order indeed.
Over my years of deploying and implementing Six Sigma within large-scale corporations, I have observed five transitional phases that individuals (and groups alike) must successfully pass through in order to bridge the chasm between where a culture is and where its leadership wants it to go. Those phases are are provided in the graphic below.
As each phase is made real, fear diminishes. As fear is melted away, people’s attitudes unfreeze. As attitudes thaw out, people naturally begin to see the positive side of things. Thus, the perceived risk is greatly reduced. Of course, this reduces fear which, in turn, gives us the incentive to continue forward until victory is achieved. Once victory has been achieved, faith dominates, not fear. Thus, fear can be transformed into a refreshed sense of trust.
When trust prevails, people (individually and collectively) begin to ask new questions, explore alternatives and cause innovations to bloom. People become happy and experience less stress (at work and home). Thus, we can now better understand why its so important to design and build a work environment that is free of fear.