Why do humans fear change?

Fear of change, managing change

Change is an inevitable part of life, and yet, humans have an innate fear of it. This fear of change and the unknown is deeply ingrained in our psychology, and it has the power to affect various aspects of our lives—including our performance in the workplace. From an evolutionary standpoint, humans have evolved to be cautious creatures. This instinctual fear of the unknown can be traced back to our ancestors who needed to assess new situations for potential threats to ensure survival—i.e. hiding from bears and wolves, integrating with unfamiliar tribes, and the worry of finding enough food to stay alive. Over time, this fear has become hardwired into our psyche, making us naturally apprehensive about unfamiliar circumstances or changes in our environment. Humans have a natural desire for control and predictability in their lives. Change disrupts these feelings of control, leading us to envision worst-case scenarios as a way to regain a sense of understanding and influence over our environment. Social interactions also play a role. When people discuss change, they may share stories of negative experiences or failures, reinforcing the idea that the worst-case scenario is a likely outcome. Change often triggers emotional responses, such as anxiety and stress. These emotions can amplify worst-case scenario thinking as our minds become fixated on potential negative outcomes as a way to cope with the uncertainty and fear. We tend to value what we already have over the potential gains from something new. When faced with change, people often fear losing the familiarity, stability, and comfort of their current situation. This fear of loss can be paralysing, and it can deter individuals from embracing change, especially when it affects their professional lives. Cognitive biases, such as the status quo bias and confirmation bias, contribute to the fear of change. The status quo bias leads individuals to prefer the current state of affairs, while confirmation bias makes them seek information that confirms their existing beliefs. Together, these biases create a resistance to new ideas and processes, making it challenging to adapt to change.

fear of change

Fear of change in the workplace

Employees often resist change when it directly impacts their roles for several reasons. In the UK, where job security is highly valued, employees can fear that changes in their role may lead to job insecurity. This fear is particularly prevalent during organisational restructuring, downsizing, or the implementation of automation/AI, as employees worry about losing their positions.

When confronted with new technologies or processes, employees may feel inadequately prepared to adapt. They fear they won’t be able to acquire the necessary skills to perform effectively in their modified roles, which can lead to a loss of confidence and a resistance to change. Humans thrive on routine and predictability. Changes in job roles can disrupt established routines and create uncertainty, leading to resistance. Employees may fear that their productivity will suffer during the transition. Their fear of the unknown is amplified when they’re uncertain about the potential consequences of change. They begin to think, ‘How will this affect me?’ and ‘Will it benefit me in the long run?’ If the answers are unclear, they may dig their heels in and resist the changes coming their way.

Leadership strategies to overcome resistance to change

Effective leaders can play a crucial role in helping their teams overcome the fear of change. Communication is paramount when introducing change. Leaders should communicate the reasons behind the change, its potential benefits for the organisation and individuals, and a clear timeline for implementation. Addressing concerns and questions openly and honestly will help alleviate the team’s fears and uncertainties. Leaders should also actively listen to their employees’ concerns and empathise with their apprehensions. Take the time to understand their perspectives and emotions; this will build trust and foster a sense within the individual that they’re being heard and valued. Encouraging open dialogue can also provide employees with a platform to express their fears. It’s important to recognise that different employees may have varying needs and reactions to change. Tailoring support to individual team members can make the transition smoother. This might include providing additional training for those who need it or offering support and mentorship as they adapt to their new roles. Involving employees in the decision-making process whenever possible can increase their sense of ownership and control over the change. Leaders should seek input, ideas, and feedback from their teams, making them active participants in the process, rather than passive recipients to the changes. Maintaining open channels for feedback during and after the implementation of change is also crucial. If problems or concerns crop up once the changes have been implemented, but they’re not addressed, this could undo all the good work that has gone before. Leaders need to be receptive to ongoing concerns and suggestions and allow for adjustments and refinements to the change process as and when needed. Sharing success stories from within the organisation or industry can serve as powerful motivators. Demonstrate how others have successfully navigated similar changes and reaped the benefits; this can inspire confidence and reduce fear.

An example of success

One notable example of successful major changes implemented within a UK company is the transformation journey of British Airways (BA) during the late 2000s and early 2010s. Faced with airlines such as EasyJet and RyanAir offering low-cost flights, the company had to overhaul the way it worked to remain competitive. This involved several significant changes, including a merger, organisational restructuring, and modernisation efforts.

engaged team

So, what was it about the process British Airways implemented that made it such a success? Strong leadership and clear vision Key to the transformation was the leadership of CEO Willie Walsh. His clear vision for the company’s future and commitment to making necessary changes set the tone for the entire organisation. Employee engagement and involvement British Airways involved its employees at all levels in the change process. This included seeking input and feedback, providing training and support for employees to adapt to new roles and technologies, and creating a sense of shared ownership in the company’s success.

Effective communication: Transparent and frequent communication was vital. The leadership team regularly communicated the reasons behind the changes, the expected benefits, and the progress being made. This helped address any fears or uncertainties amongst employees.

Gradual implementation: The changes were implemented gradually rather than abruptly, allowing employees to adapt progressively. This reduced the shock and resistance that can result from sudden and drastic changes. Continuous improvement British Airways committed to ongoing evaluation and adaptation. The company monitored the effectiveness of the changes, solicited feedback from customers and employees, and made adjustments as necessary.

Employee support programmes: British Airways provided various support programmes—such as training, mentorship, and career development opportunities—to help employees navigate the changes and acquire new skills. That’s not to say everything ran smoothly. British Airways faced challenges during its transformation, including labour disputes and cost-cutting measures; however, the changes, overall, were deemed a success. The company’s efforts resulted in improved financial performance, increased customer satisfaction, and a stronger competitive position in the industry. These positive outcomes helped build confidence among employees and stakeholders. Lastly, it’s important we recognise that change will be unfamiliar or uncomfortable for the leaders, managers and anyone else tasked with implementing it, too. A seamless, effective, minimal-stress process will undoubtedly be favourable to everyone involved.

Do you want to help leaders deliver the change process?

The Jigsaw Discovery Tool can help leaders deliver the change process—whether the change is team-specific or company-wide. It uses evidence-based psychology and neuroscience to help individuals, teams and organisations perform better. For more information, call 01924 898930. 

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