CXO

The dumb idea that people fear change

There's a longstanding bromide in IT circles that people fear change, and a key activity for leaders is to mitigate that fear. Patrick Gray explores why this notion is completely misguided.

Image: iStock/bowie15

Talk about change management in IT or general business leadership circles, and the discussion will soon turn to the notion that people naturally fear change. With mental imagery of someone cowered in a dark corner while an evil beast towers over them, claws extended and mouth foaming, you'll start talking about how to overcome the irrational fear engendered by your project that will set all the supposed beneficiaries to trembling.

Do we really fear change?

Humans certainly exhibit a rational fear of the unknown. Throw me into a dark cave without a flashlight, and I'll likely need a new pair of underwear should I hear a deep-throated roar from an unseen, nearby beast. Yet at the same time, humans routinely strive for change. Entire industries are dedicated to helping us change how we look, stay fit, or even extend our lives.

Ask the average person if they'd like to instantly lose 20 pounds and receive a check for a billion dollars, and they'll immediately and happily embrace those rather significant changes to their lives. Clearly, if fear plays any role in a change situation, it's a fear of the unknown vs. an innate fear of change itself.

The universal law of WIIFM

Far more basic than a misguided notion of fear of change is the basic human need to understand WIIFM: What's In It For Me. Even the frighteningly unknown becomes significantly more palatable when there is an obvious benefit.

WIIFM may be a transcendentally noble cause, like a soldier jumping into enemy fire to save a comrade, knowing his leap into the breach and risk of death could help his fellows and his country. Or, it might be achieving personal fame and glory, retaining employment, currying favor with the boss or, more likely, some mix of multiple areas.

WIIFM varies by the individual. You might be motivated by stories of how an initiative will change the company and generate value for the shareholders, while my WIIFM might be that I can shuffle work off to someone else.

A simple formula for change?

With fear summarily dismissed from our change equation, it seems relatively straightforward that avoiding the unknown and appealing to WIIFM are far more effective techniques than shrugging our shoulders and chalking up failed initiatives to an innate flaw in the human race. Like most good advice, however, avoiding the unknown and appealing to WIIFM are easy to articulate, but must be executed with care.

Avoiding the unknown is perhaps the easiest way for an initiative to avoid resistance to change. The moment you assemble teams, bring in consultants, or even start holding meetings with unknown persons, people will begin constructing stories about what's occurring. Being clear and straightforward, and communicating the objectives, impact, and current state of a change initiative, shines a bright light into the metaphorical cave, reducing the chance that stories of monsters created by others gain credence.

As the M in WIIFM implies, articulating "What's in it for me?" will vary based on the impacted individual and, in some cases, there will be little or no benefit in an initiative for a key constituent. In some cases, WIIFM may be little more than getting to keep your job.

However, too often we focus on vague notions of value or efficiency, where there are obvious personal benefits to those involved. If you create an initiative and extol the virtues of shareholder value and improved performance, I'll likely summarily ignore your initiative. If you extol the time I'll save performing a tedious task, or the increased authority I'll have to perform my job since I'll be equipped with better information, I may be so excited I'll join the project or preach its virtues to colleagues.

Fear the fear, not the change

Fear makes an easy scapegoat for an insufficient or ineffective change management strategy. It's easy to shrug our shoulders and cite irrational behavior as the reason our initiative failed to be adopted. While revealing the unknown and broadly answering WIIFM are easily explained, answering these questions places the onus for effective change where it belongs: squarely on the leaders attempting to execute the change.

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About Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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