(This paper was co-authored with Jon Raelin)
When people say that organizational change scares them to death, they’re not kidding. Change
means loss—whether it’s loss of colleagues, routines, or benchmarks. And loss reminds us of the
ultimate one, life itself. Macabre? Maybe. But mortality is a looming reality that we go to great
lengths to repress.
Support for this idea comes from “Terror Management Theory.” Empirically verified by
hundreds of studies, Terror Management shows that anything that rouses the inevitability of our
demise forces us to recognize our lack of control over the world. This experience is, well,
terrifying. Evolutionary self-preservation kicks in to prevent this crippling awareness.
Consciously or not, we humans—rich in internal life—erect defensive existential buffers that
enable coping with, and adjusting to, threats posed by a constantly changing, uncertain, and
anxiety provoking world. There are three: consistency, which allows us to see the world as
orderly, predicable, familiar, and safe; standards/justice, which are the basis upon which we
establish and enforce what’s good and fair, and; culture, which imbues us with the sense that we
have contributed to, and are participating in, a larger and enduring holistic system. Puncture any
of these and mortality rears its dreadful head.
What’s this have to do with organizational change? Is resistance to change somehow rooted in
fear of death? It is if these buffers are threatened. Consider the following.
Imagine an operational change that alters processes, procedures, or logistics, entailing a shift in
routines, patterns, and habits. Implementing novel acquisition systems or software programs are
small-scale examples; new computer interfaces and total physical relocations are large-scale ones.
Any of these disrupt consistency, thrusting us into a quasi-state of flux where we lose our ability
to navigate the varied terrain and make sense of our surroundings.
As Ed Schein observes:
“Disorder and senselessness makes us anxious, so we will work hard to reduce that anxiety by
developing a more consistent and predictable view.”
Continuing along these lines, changing how employee performance is measured is another
common organizational undertaking. A salesperson asked to increase volume, the addition of
new appraisal elements such as cross-selling and teamwork, or introducing metrics used to
evaluate, say, efficiency, are fitting instances. These change the standards/justice we’ve used to
assess our own competence, and bring fairness and equity into question. In our minds the
connection between what we do and what we get collapses, opening up the possibility that we do
Finally, organizations often endeavor to change beliefs and values to realign the priorities we place
on ideas, actions, and outcomes. Variations include attempts to instill competitor awareness,
ethical decision-making, innovation, risk-orientation, and unity of purpose. This pierces the
culture buffer by requiring us to reconstruct our worldview; our assumptions about what’s
important and why. These beliefs had previously bestowed a figurative permanence, and losing
them enfeebles the living record of our past accomplishments and the social system we helped to
create. Our identities are irrevocably intertwined with our culture. When one goes, the other may soon follow.
Taken together, ruptured buffers means buffered resistance. The more change entails loss, the
more it evokes a figurative and literal end, and the more we dig in.
Fortunately there’s a lot human resources can do to counteract resistance rooted in something as
deep as fear of death. Nothing is more practical than treating causes, not symptoms. Leaders
should furnish consistency by ensuring that we are informed about, and trained in, new operational
procedures well in advance.
This confers an opportunity to acclimate to new routines. If there are changes in performance measurement, good leaders can painstakingly explain the shifts to illustrate the implications of such, based on past performance and extrapolated to future performance. Now we better understand how the new system impacts us and what to adjust to maintain or exceed previous levels. This protects something we hold very dear: our self-esteem.
Finally, shifts in culture require a nuanced justification for why beliefs and values need to change.
Culture change is less threatening to the extent that it is honestly framed as an adaptation to
environmental demands, and that the reasoning behind it is not capricious. Generally speaking,
leaders must not deny that loss will occur or else they appear “clueless,” and should supply
sufficient time to allow us to render the unfamiliar familiar. Leaders should strive to reduce
uncertainty and anxiety so that buffers can be repaired and competency restored.
Organizational change is all too often painted in broad brushstrokes oriented toward bold strategic
thrusts. This depreciates the fact that, ultimately, the success or failure of change must account for
us as well as the organization in-aggregate. For leaders, the primary value here is in understanding
that change itself is less important than understanding the psychological bulwark it invades.
From executives to supervisors, the recognition and appreciation of what we are afraid of losing is
critical. Mitigating loss becomes the basis upon which employees adjust capabilities to
organizational demands, facilitating both satisfaction and success. We can’t stave off death
forever, but the debilitating effects of being reminded of it at work can be tempered by good
Jon Raelin is an Adjunct Professor at the George Washington University
To see the Harvard Business Review version, click here.
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