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Why Change Leads to Fear

Change - No thanks?

About 80% of change management projects of companies do not or only partially lead to the desired success. This is the result of an IBM study from 2014, which was conducted across industries and countries. What is the problem? The problems in implementing change are due to the mindset of employees and the unconciously running processes. Let's take a look at how the human brain - quite subconsciously - deals with the topic of change.

How does your team react to announcements that contain the terms "Change Project", "Restructuring" or "Reorganization"? With a shrug of the shoulders, a soft groan, a louder "Oh no" and a grumble in the stomach area?

A few words are enough to evoke (many) negative emotions. And yet all employees then contribute their share to the announced change process in a motivated, committed and creative way. Do they really?

Unfortunately, not. Every manager knows, that this is exactly where the challenge begins.

Change is a Challenge

Many employees perceive change as annoying or even threatening, not as an opportunity for a successful future. Their fears and worries overshadow the joint work of the following weeks. What should initiate a positive development in the company, sets the opposite in motion: a psychological defense process.

Many different situations trigger this defensive reaction:

  • Lack of transparency

  • Inefficient communication

  • Lack of support from management

  • Defensive reactions and low motivation of employees due to fears and worries

  • Lack of skills for implementing the requirements

  • Low capital investments for change projects

  • Unrealistic time and resource planning

  • Dealing with change as a one-time process instead of a continuous state

  • Resistance to learning new things

  • Lack of real involvement and participation

The decisive factors in the change process are people. Their participation decides on success and failure. And this is exactly what is usually underestimated. In many cases only the content of the change project is discussed and people try to establish trust by explaining the purpose of the project.

With a people-oriented approach you can significantly support the successful implementation of your change projects. This assumes that we know what is going on in our mind during this defensive reaction or change projects, and how we can deal with it.

Upcoming changes start mechanisms almost unconsciously in the brain of all those affected. With the knowledge of these processes you can better control your own thinking and emotions and at the same time better understand the emotions, behavior and thinking of your employees.

Oh No - A Saber-Toothed Tiger

Change and transformation is interpreted (by most people not even consciously) as danger and threat. Faced with a possible danger, a brain structure called the amygdala gets into action. The amygdala examines incoming information on threats. If it classifies something as potentially dangerous, it sends signals to the body to initiate the biological survival program.

This is done, for example, by accelerating the heartbeat, raising the pulse and blood pressure, and accelerating breathing. Everything happens within a few seconds. While the senses are now sharpened and the body's performance is increased, the amygdala checks in the prefrontal cortex (responsible for the higher cognitive abilities) whether a solution or strategy for this threat is already in place. If not, the brain starts the second phase, in which hormones initiate the release of cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone that puts the body into a high-energy state.

The whole process ensures that our body gets more oxygen and energy to increase its reaction and performance. For this purpose, the brain is "switched off". Without access to its cognitive abilities, the brain and body are focused exclusively on the danger; you are in "escape-fight-freeze mode". In an argument, did you ever say something you later didn't mean? Or did you do something you later regretted? Every time that happened, your 'primitive' brain took control. This mechanism offers advantages, because it leads to an increase in performance. And if you are just working towards a deadline, it can give you that extra bit of energy. But if your body is flooded with cortisol at regular intervals, the consequences can be devastating. But more on this later.

Danger Has Many Faces

These extremely fast processes are evolutionary. The saber-toothed tigers of the 21st century have different faces than before - but the brain always reacts in the same way. Because this reaction was essential for survival back then. Next to the "great" and long-lasting dangers of illness and loss, there are often a variety of short-term situations that frighten people: The performance review with the supervisor, a threatening argument with a colleague, the daily drive on the crowded highway. Due to the amount of large and small dangers and the fears associated with them, there is a risk of permanent stress.

Also Change triggers stress, because it creates uncertainty. What happens after that change? Do I have to work with other people? Do I keep my status? Will something be decided over my head again and do I have to carry it out? Many scenarios take place in the heads of the employees and all of them lead to more or less severe states of anxiety.

Fear Is Also A Danger

Continuous stress can lead to burnout or depression due to ongoing alertness. In addition, persistently high cortisol levels can cause thought disorders, as they cause the Hippocampus to shrink. Then memory deteriorates and mental processes are impaired. In addition, constant stress can weaken the immune system and cause sleep disorders.

Cortisol, as the body's own hormone, is basically useful. It helps the body to perform well in a short time. Nevertheless, constant stress should be avoided. A permanently high-speed motor does not last long either...

The human survival program is therefore both a blessing and a curse - as always, it all depends on balance.

How can I avoid fear among my employees?

Live a culture of transparency and clarity. Show your employees that they have nothing to fear and that there is honest and open communication between you. People are afraid when they do not know or cannot foresee something. The brain does not like uncertainty, because it is perceived as a threat. And the more people think about such uncertain situations, the worse the expectations become. Interrupt this process.

Get to know your employees and their different reactions to change. Who finds change particularly difficult? Then pick up these employees from where they currently are. Build up a good relationship of trust. Because where trust exists, there is no fear. And with trust and understanding, your employees will follow you and changes can be initiated more successfully. Remember, every person is different. But if you know the individual preferences and needs of your employees, you can have a greater influence.

Now you know how your employees and yourself react to a situation that you interpret as a threat. If you perceive stress reactions, you know that one or more requirements have frightened you or your employees.

But what influence does change actually have on our brain? How does the brain react on unexpected changes? And what does learning and routine activities have to do with change processes? You will learn more about this in the next blog article, which will be published soon.


Source: [1] IMB Studies: Making Change work, S. 4 Picture: © stockwerkfotodesign | (Datei-Nr. 111298622)

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