6 February 2009

Fear and panic

After thinking about how project workers seem to be pretty engaged with their work and many operations people are more interested in maintaining the status quo I got to thinking about the way we approach change management.

A lot of the corporate change programmes I have seen (and been a part of) have involved educating the affected people about the ease of the change, the benefits to them and the organisation.

“By adopting this new business process/IT system/reporting framework you’ll be able to save money and get more done!”

And people just don’t care. They snap back to their previous practices like a tightly wound rubber band.

What would happen if we used fear as a motivator? It seems to me that many of the leading change management practitioners actually do that. Especially with senior management.

Can we apply it to frontline users and project stakeholders?

“If we don’t enable ourselves with this internet thing we’ll be out of business by October next year!”

Are there any change practitioners out there using fear to get change to happen?

Does it work?

Photo by Bah Humbug and CC @ flickr


  1. Eric,

    Do you really wonder why change management programs fail so frequently?

    I've never been on a change management project where fear worked. The problem is, it's not real. Usually, it's manufactured by executives more concerned with the change management program than with the realities of business.

    There are only two situations where I've seen change management work.

    1. On Wall St, implementing digital trading floors. The advantage in space gained and the degree to which it empowered traders and gave them a huge competitive advantage made it a no brainer. It was essentially like giving beer to a man lost in the desert.

    2. The current working situation is so painfully inefficient, that "if you add 5% more to our workload, there'll be open revolt." - that was a direct quote to the president of the company.

    Most change management programs fail because they should. It's either some executive's misguided wet dream or it's a thinly veiled way to fire people.

    The only good reason to implement change management is to increase corporate profitability. Rule of thumb, there are only two ways a business becomes more profitable. One, it increases sales or two, it decreases costs i.e. fire people.

    Very few change management programs are focused around sales. Most of them are focused around improving operations. Making operations more efficient is only beneficial to the company if there is so much new business in the pipeline that you can add more work into the system and make the company more profitable. Or, you can decrease costs and the easiest way to decrease costs is to fire people. If I make the operation 20% more efficient, I can fire 20% (or more) of the people.

    I'll go back to my initial question, do you really wonder why change management programs fail?

  2. Anonymous3:24 am

    I don't believe you can enforce change by fear. Tell people they have to adapt to something or company will be out of business by October and you'll result in people looking for a new jobs i panic. They won't wait to see whether new thing was adopted and if it was enough for the company to survive.

    Sure implementing change usually requires that some actions are enforced for some time, because you need to break resistance (even for changes which are reasonable). The example from Wall Street Andrew brings is extraordinary and it doesn't happen often.

    As soon as people see improvement they follow the change. The goal is to have them seeing the improvement as soon as possible. Fear doesn't help here in any way.

  3. I like the question that Andrew posed, "do you really wonder why change mgt program fail"?
    And to add to that, I believe most organization want to do the right thing but they fail to recognize what is it that they do. They don't intensely look at the current processes, practices and business rules that when they implement these programs, there is not fit. It either adds more work; use up more resources or is just to much of a change that it's hard to get accustomed to or see the benefits right away.
    Either way, fear of losing jobs -- in Pawel's example could push people to adopt a program. The question is will the change make things better or worse?

  4. There are many nuances, but to me, it's a question of 1)trust and 2) ownership.

    One of Deming's 14 points had to do with driving OUT fear and CREATING trust. Fear accomplishes short-term objectives but usually leaves a lot to be desired for driving lasting, positive change.

    Most change initiatives try to sell the change in terms of benefits, etc. It's OK to highlight the "what's in it for me"....but if you can find a way for people to own the change, go for that too. Usually this is top-down instead of bottom-up though. If the CEO "owns" the change, she should find ways to allow her direct reports to make it their own without destroying the core. As the initiative goes through the hierarchy, each step should take it further away from concept/strategy and closer to tactical implementation, with each level securing their ownership over a piece of it by fleshing out their own implementation.

    Josh Nankivel

  5. So John Kotter has written the default playbook for org change.

    Among the things he addresses is the need to avoid complacency among the people who need to change (for your initiative to be successful) and to build a sense of urgency.

    How about if I phrase it "reveal the dire consequences" of not changing?

    Does that suit you guys better?

  6. I don't believe a sense of urgency should be the goal for it's own sake. If you have trust in the organization and people buy-into it through ownership and understanding the benefits at a "gut level", then a sense of urgency will naturally emerge.

    Using fear to generate it is contrived..much more command-and-control and less stimulating of creativity.

    Josh Nankivel

  7. Craig,

    either there is a sense of urgency or there is not a sense of urgency. I don't think you can "create" a sense of urgency.

    If you spend your credibility creating a sense of urgency, when something really urgent comes along, you'll find yourself sounding like a Chihuahua in a tin can.

    Instead, look for the real motivators in the company and align the project with them. If there aren't real motivators, look for another job.

    I'll extend the idea offered by my practical, Midwestern brethren Josh. Go with Ed Deming over John Kotter. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._Edwards_Deming

    Point 1: Create constancy of purpose.
    Point 8: Drive out fear.

    I wish I could offer something more helpful. Unfortunately, the old saying that "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." holds true in change management. If the people whose lives are going to change don't see the change as beneficial and desirable, they are not going to change.

    For what it's worth, I'm sure President Obama would sympathize with you. For all his inspiring talk about nonpartisan politics and threats of financial ruin, those pesky politicians remain partisan!

  8. Anonymous10:26 pm

    I prefer working on positive constructs. Fear can be (and has been) a motivator in some change situations, but isn't the best factor to structure an entire CM methodology around:

    For one, it's a very short-term motivator (you can't scare people for ages, they either lose the fear or run away), while many strategic change programs require long effort, often years. It is also finite, i.e. if/when the 'dire consequences' occur, that's the end: people give up, everything dies. (Positive motivation, on the contrary, soldiers on even if the worst comes).

    Another perspective to consider is the fear of consequences (of not changing) v/s the fear of change. Fear fo change is among the biggest reasons for the well known and widespread resistance to change. To overcome resistance, using fear as motivator requires to pitch one fear against another, 'my fear is bigger than yours'. In reality, it has been well observed (can't point to resources as I write, but you'll find research) that fear of change is very polarised: in an organisation, there are strong opponents to change and strong advocates, with few people in the middle. Because of this polarisation, fear of consequences as a CM tool is not an effective tool: the optimists don't need it, and the pessimists are 'immune' to it as in their eyes Change has even worse consequences.

    I would recommend segmenting the stakeholders in the organisation. (Segmentation, some may have noticed, is a pet subject - thanks, Craig for quoting me in another blog post). This allows you to use different approaches with different groups. The above dimension of Attitude To Change (Pessimists vs Optimists or Advocates vs Saboteurs) is a good one to segment along. Even better if you introduce a second dimension of Awareness (knowledge, competence about what this Change means). You will end up with 4 Quadrants (don't all consultants love presenting the world as a 2x2 matrix?! :) – each meriting a different strategy, motivators and tools to use:

    - Informed Optimists: your best advocates, appoint them as project managers and team leaders and use their positive energy to motivate others.
    - Uninformed Optimists: those are in favour of change, but not sure why. Given a little education, they are esily converted into the IO (previous) group.
    - Uninformed Pessimists - are afraid of change because they don't understand what it means. More education, giving them sound reasons can also convert them.
    - Informed Pessimists: the hardest to work with. They are against Change and have a very good reason, they can put forward strong arguments against change. Some suggest avoiding and isolating them, but what if the CEO is one of them? I see a positive side even here: being well informed and rational people, one can have an intelligent debate with rational arguments to support the change cause; if our Change makes real logical sense (and is not someone's whim or pet fad), and if they are truly rational (and don't get emotional, as some do) we have a chance of changing their mind. Or, at least, 'agreeing to disagree' and reducing their resistance into passive mode.

    Just my $0.02