Why is Change so Scary?

Have you ever wondered why people’s response to organisational change can be so extreme?  The level of upset, anger and frustration are sometimes way out of proportion with the actual scale of the changes.  It’s as if they feel really threatened by the change.

Fear is the answer I most often get, when I pose the question to audiences.  There is a lot to that answer and it reflects upon the communication process that change teams may or may not adopt.  But I want to go deeper.

When they adapted Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s “Grief Model” to organisational change, Cynthia Scott and Dennis Jaffe created one of the most useful models of how we respond to change.  In so doing, they implicitly inferred that our emotional response to change arises from a fear akin to our most powerful fears: of death, loss and bereavement.

Does this make sense to you?

I don’t think it is death we fear, but I do think that change triggers in us very powerful emotions.  The reason is that evolution has left us with a limited range of responses. Given a scenario, all our bodies and brains can do is apply the physiological and psychological response that most closely match the circumstances.  The inappropriate extent of our response to change is therefore a result of the lack of a fine tuned response to the situation we have encountered.

Let’s face it, our ancient ancestors, hunting on the plains of Africa, did not get back to their cave after a long day of hunting and gathering to find that the Cave Manager had re-allocated their work rock to one further from the opening and was now asking them to shift job role from making spearheads to carving needles.

Our ancestors had bigger changes to deal with.  The sort of change they had to deal with was getting back to the cave to discover that a giant cave bear had eaten their family.  And now it is turning on them.  That’s fear!  It would trigger automatic physiological responses:  first, fright – they would momentarily freeze – and then, an instant choice of fight or flight – probably the latter.

Our ancestors were all successful.  That’s why we are here. But, as a result, they have left us with their genetic legacy.  Faced with potentially adverse organisational changes:

  • First we freeze – we deny that change is happening, because this is more comfortable than facing up to reality
  • Then, we react emotionally – fear, anger, upset, frustration: these are our “fight-or-flight” response
  • Only then does our rational mind kick in – we start to articulate our resistance effectively

The “so what?”

If you are involved with organisational change, expect disproportionate responses; they are natural.  There are ways to handle them effectively, but first you must acknowledge them for what they are.


2 thoughts on “Why is Change so Scary?

  1. Pingback: Don’t tell me what to do « Shift Happens!

  2. Pingback: Don’t tell me what to do « Handling Resistance

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