The Business Improvement Network

The Fear of Change

By Lisa Sheppard

Lisa Sheppard

Change programmes often illicit fear among employees, but the pandemic has shown us that there is a clear need for businesses to adapt in terms of functions, deliverables, systems and processes to stay profitably active. So what’s the best way?  


Kubler-Ross’s well documented Change Curve Model shows the various emotions and subsequently linked behaviour patterns that form the pathway many people take when faced with change.  Like most models, people don’t transition from left to right in a nice, neat linear way.  Rather they take a similar route to that of the 5 phases of grief and bounce between any of the phases at any time; they may also not experience all/any of them.  What most modern businesses acknowledge (or arguably should acknowledge), is that their people are their business, and without them there is no business, no clients and no profit.  You want the best people in the best role, delivering the best service to your business.  Perhaps even more so during periods of transition.


The Change Curve research is widely available online, and I would highly recommend reviewing this when going into a change environment.  If nothing else, it gives leaders an understanding of what to expect, and why some people may react out of character.  During Roadshows I created with my last company 2-3 years ago, having this model on a slide elicited many comments similar to “now I understand why I do what I do”, and the conversations around this were both enlightening and humorous.  The result of which is they have remained in the employee conscious for some considerable time.


Business leaders all understand that in the world of commerce change is inevitable, but it can be problematic, costly and risky.  Therefore, the better option would surely be to use psychological research to remove these concerns, ensuring that the business and its staff are working together towards one common goal.

•    Empowerment is seen as more important/at least as important as financial remuneration in studies around why people remain with a particular employer.  Empower your people to be part of the change process – it may lead to lower attrition rates and employment costs as a positive you perhaps hadn’t thought of
•    Listen to their ideas.  Lean practices suggest you “go to Gemba” meaning to go to where the problem is, and not just to the management/supervision level but those at the front end.  Listen, and include small groups in the decision-making process so they feel they’ve been part of the solution and the decision-making process.  Back to empowerment!
•    Spend time working with the departments that need to change.  Perhaps your initial thought on what needs to change is not as clear as you thought it was once you have greater exposure and can see the full picture.  That’s a good thing because as a leader, you’ve now learned and can therefore make more informed decisions.  In fact, this process of being honest and open with others about what you don’t know builds trust, and I can’t imagine there’s a business that doesn’t want their staff to trust their management
•    Engage with small focus groups from each department to follow this through, so each department feels heard, relevant, and again, empowered
•    Understand that not everyone in your business will be able to embrace the changes, and indeed some of those may come as a surprise to you.  But it’s an unfortunate fact that there are some people who just can’t deal with change.  Ideally, you have to find a way for them to either take on a different role in the business, or exit honourably if there is nowhere for them in the new world
•    Before you go about making changes, do some research with your client base or whoever is most likely to benefit from any changes.  Often changes are made that are not necessary because those who are struggling with elements of your business have very different opinions to yours in terms of the problem – so you’re both going off down different routes.  An example of this was when we were going to change parts of the finance function, but actually when we went to one particular client who had been vocal they said “we just want our invoice to this address by the 5th of the month” which was nowhere near the type of changes we were about to make.  Going to Gemba may mean to go where the problem is, i.e. the department with the highest number of complaints, but it could arguably also mean going to the source of the complaints to get a higher level of information prior to any decision making
•    Perhaps more importantly, set clear and workable timelines for each decision as part of the bigger process.  People need to understand what is expected of them, in what format, with a deadline that they are happy with.  Ensure everyone understands any ramifications of failure to meet deadlines.  If you allow one person/department to miss one, you have to allow everyone.  Fairness in a process of change goes a long way with your employees

There is no doubt that change is difficult, even for those who enjoy the challenge.  Often the timelines are difficult if not seemingly impossible, and the systems you are working with don’t bend to change.  But, if you understand why people react the way they do, and find ways to work this knowledge to the best advantage for all concerned, there is no reason your business, staff retention, client base and profit won’t ultimately be all the stronger.

About the author

Lisa went to University at the age of 42, learned to dive and started horse riding lessons at the age of 49 and somewhere in amongst all that started helicopter lessons too!.

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