A Leader’s Greatest Challenge is Employee Fear

A Leader’s Greatest Challenge is Employee Fear

By Dean Leutscher

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. – H. P. Lovecraft

Every one of us – from the C-suite to the shop floor – can relate to that statement by Lovecraft. We want to feel safe and in control, and we are much more comfortable when our life is predictable.

In the workplace, the greatest source of fear is change, which is rooted in fear of the unknown.

Even when we understand that the current state is inefficient, ineffective and intolerable, we prefer it to the unknown. It’s natural to resist others forcing us to do something, and the less we know about what they tell us to do, the more fearful and resistant we become. Trust is absent.

When an organization announces a change – structural, program, process or technology – fear kicks in, accompanied by many questions. How will the change affect my work? Will I have what it takes to succeed through the change? How will it affect my income and advancement potential?

In the absence of clear, factual answers to those questions, people will create their own fear-based, anxiety-producing answers. Rather than hope that the answers will be coming from leadership, talented people may minimize their risk and leave the organization. If they stay, don’t be surprised if they are distracted, disengaged or even destructive.

The time for leaders to begin helping people deal with their fears of the unknown is when the change is still being considered. Due diligence must include an assessment of the organization’s readiness for the change, and a strategy centered on helping people understand it, buy into it, train for it, and ensure that it is sustained in the long term.

Fear may also be fueled by experience. If the organization has a history of poorly planned and executed changes or initiatives that failed completely, it is difficult for people to trust that anything will be different this time around.

Successfully addressing fear related to change in your organization will not happen magically. It requires a significant investment of time, talent and money, but the payback is even greater. If all of those resources are used to implement only the functional side of the change – legal and financial, software and hardware, new manufacturing equipment, processes and procedures – leaders are missing a key pillar that supports success: their people.

It’s people who are responsible for the success or failure of the functional change, not the new equipment or process. However, change cannot be forced on employees, customers and suppliers. The changes you are considering will succeed only to the extent you help everyone understand, accept and implement them.  

When leaders make a people-centered approach to change a non-negotiable priority, the fear of the unknown, resistance and lack of trust will all dissolve. If not, that fear will suck the life out of what otherwise could have been a much more profitable change initiative that moves the company in a positive direction.

Dean Leutscher provides services that help organizations succeed through change, including Project Management, Communications and Training. Links to other articles written by Dean can be found in the publications section of his LinkedIn profile: linkedin.com/in/deanleutscher

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