Overcoming Fear of Change
The world tumbled around me...sky, plane, and ground circling over and over. My brain was shrieking that I was an idiot and had just gotten myself killed. A scream tore out of my throat and vanished with the rushing wind. Moments later my tandem guide threw out his arms and we steadied. The world stopped spinning, and I remembered the statistic that had kept me calm in the plane on the way up - that I was less likely to die skydiving than driving to work. I took a deep breath and found myself in peaceful awe of the beauty around me. Blue skies and a green landscape thousands of feet below. No sound but the wind.
Change can feel a bit like skydiving at times - both trigger fear in most sane people. Change is scary because we feel out of control. We think that because we’re facing something new, we can't know what to expect, and we can't prepare for the outcome. Uncertainty is what makes change overwhelming. Psychologists have proven that people are less stressed when they know something bad is going to happen than when they don’t know what to expect. If we know what’s coming, we can prepare ourselves for it, which helps us feel in control. The problem is that not changing isn't an option for businesses. Customers’ needs and expectations change, competitors’ strategies change, technology changes…and if your business doesn't adapt, you’ll go extinct. Yet fear of change holds many businesses back. We hear this fear expressed in phrases like, “It’s the way we’ve always done it,” “It’s the industry standard,” or “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
How do we overcome fear of change?
First, we need to recognize the fear. So often fear shows up as rescheduled meetings or procrastination on to do lists. If you find yourself continually making excuses for why you can't do something, fear may be the underlying cause.
Second, face the truth about the risks of not changing. Many of our consulting relationships begin with a business that is already in crisis reaching out for assistance. These organizations have to make swift and often painful changes to stay in business. Don't wait until your business is at death's door to make change.
Third, remind yourself what you can control. You can’t avoid change, but you can control how you manage the change. We only FEEL out of control when faced with change. In fact, when we embrace change, we are taking control. Deepen that control by choosing a direction and staying focused on it. This is your vision. Just like skydiving, the world is terrifying when it's spinning wildly. Unlike skydiving, you can choose which direction you go. You stop the spinning when you make a strategic choice and stick to it.
You also exert control by formulating a solid plan. This is my personal forte. I almost always have plans A through D carefully designed in (possibly excessive) detail. It is ingrained in my DNA that I must be prepared for anything. In fact, the Johnston (maiden name) family motto dating back to the 14th century is nunquam non paratus, or ‘never unprepared’. Johnstons have a plan (and often a spreadsheet) for everything from buying a stereo to making a career change. If you find yourself getting worried about a change, don't ignore the fear – use it. Identify the risks, plot to minimize them, and design a means to monitor them. And if planning isn’t your strength, find someone who can help guide you along.
Fourth, help others regain a sense of control as well. Give those who will be impacted abundant opportunities for input. This helps them regain their sense of control. Listen to concerns and incorporate them into the plan to make it even stronger.
Finally, don’t lose sight of the rewards. If you’ve embraced change instead of avoiding it, then you’ve undoubtedly planned a change that will benefit your business – improved market share, increased customer satisfaction, or raised profit margins. Remind yourself and your team of those rewards regularly. Post progress towards the goals where everyone can see them. Celebrate early and often to sustain progress.
It’s natural to be afraid of change, but you can’t let that stop you. In the words of Alan Watts, “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” Find your focus, jump, then enjoy the feel of the wind in your hair.