Dilbert, Oprah, Elaine Benes and Overcoming Your Fear of Change

by | Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

The Dilbert comic strip series is so often dead-on about the realities of life and business. Take the May 19, 2004 strip that smacks at the scariness of change.

Why does the Boss find change so frightening? Let’s consider change from a cultural perspective, which will shed light on why it can be scary. This fear must be overcome, as change is fundamental to innovation.

From childhood rearing, to primary education, through secondary education, and sometimes even higher education, the need for consistency is built into our fabric. We learn to maintain schedules and become comfortable with familiarity. Repetition is the foundation for even the simplest of events such as when to eat and sleep, to preparing for exams, to developing athletic skills, to military training, to engagement in social activities. As a result, we often shun change, or what is unfamiliar because it seems like an outlier. How many of us are thrilled when we see “Detour, Road Closed” and now need to go down an unknown, out-of-the-way highway? Those who overcome the natural instinct for repetition and are able to adopt change may become heroes, forward thinkers, or inventors; at a minimum, they are adept at learning to thrive in any situation. Conversely, when fear of change becomes severe and almost debilitating, it takes on the form of what psychologists term metathesiophobia.

Pop culture illustrates our obsession with familiarity vs. change. Consider the thousands of songs that deal with change: breakups, divorce, death, loss of friends, loss of innocence and social unrest. We see it on TV, such as the iconic Seinfeld episode, in which Elaine Benes angles for a dead neighbor’s 212 area code, rather than accept the new 646. We experience it in movies, such as The Descendants and, more recently, Blue JasmineOprah Winfrey also offers advice on managing change, noting that, like the spring rain, it will happen whether you want it or not.

Spencer Johnson, MD, offers a simplified model for change in his business classic, Who Moved My Cheese? The book is a simple parable that follows the activities of Sniff, Scurry, Hem and Haw, who live in a maze and need cheese for nourishment – cheese being a metaphor for what is wanted and the maze for the company environment. The characters represent different traits in how they deal with the situation – from moving on to seek new cheese, or stuck in denial, or initially scared but then moving on. The book teaches leaders and their organizations to realize that change happens (with them or without), change needs to be anticipated, change needs to monitored, change needs to be adapted to quickly, and always be ready to change again quickly. The key thought refrain in Dr. Johnson’s book is you either change or you become extinct.

So, how do you, as a leader, take your company through change? Harvard professor John Kotter, author of A Force for Change, The Heart of Change and A Sense of Urgency, notes that 70% of change efforts in organizations fail because leaders do not implement holistic efforts to see change all the way through. Kotter emphasizes that leadership is not about consistency and order. Rather, leadership produces movement and Kotter offers eight key ingredients for leaders to take their organizations through change.

  1. Establish a true sense of urgency by connecting with the deepest values of their people and inspire them to greatness. Leaders need to make the business case for change come alive with passion.
  2. Create a guiding coalition that yields a team with a critical mass of position power, which can eliminate potential road-blocks; members should be respected in the organization, so that team announcements will be taken seriously; team members should represent well-rounded expertise; team members will be proven leaders who are able to direct change.
  3. Develop a change vision that can be aspired to and seen it as attainable. It will also be feasible (possible), focused and can be simply communicated.
  4. Communicate a vision for buy-in that is simple, vivid (others can create an image of the vision), and repeatable person-to-person, and invites two-way communication.
  5. Empower broad-based action so that structural barriers are removed that are inhibiting change and have honest, direct dialogue with managers who are not pulling their weight or impeding the progress of their constituencies.
  6. Generate short-term wins that reinforce the ultimate success of the change and should be celebrated. Short-term wins also can also win-over naysayers.
  7. It’s a long road, so never let-up. Leaders should attempt to drive change deeper and deeper into the organization. Do not let change stall.
  8. Make cultural change stick by demonstrating and communicating success, rewarding new values and norms, and reinforce with every new employee.

Kotter’s principles have been embraced by leading global companies. These principles enable leaders to take their organizations through even the scariest of changes that can be the result of technology advances, regulatory challenges, new competition, or even a change at the very top of the leadership hierarchy such as a new CEO.

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