Fear – the change leader’s friend or foe?

October 9, 2013 | By | Add a Comment

SingaporeI was recently invited to deliver the keynote address at the Public Sector Change and Transformation Forum in Singapore.  The theme was leading organisation change and I spoke about neuroscience and effective change leaders.  After my session a delegate asked whether neuroscience now disproves John Kotter’s1 long-held view that successful change first requires creating a sense of urgency.

According to Kotter, effective change leaders highlight potential organisation threats or hazards (e.g., the “burning platform”).  The same delegate also quoted, David Rock2 who argues that effective change leaders create a “toward state” in followers, helping them feel safe and engaged in the change process.  I suggested that the evidence still supports Kotter’s over Rock’s view.  Creating a sense of urgency is essential for overcoming the most difficult and persistent form of change resistance – complacency.

Rock’s SCARF3 model describes five domains that activate “reward or threat” neural networks (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness).  Reward networks are associated with “approach” behaviour (e.g., supporting change), while threat networks with “avoidance” behaviour (e.g., resisting change).  The SCARF model argues that individuals react to various sources of reward or threat by approaching or avoiding these sources, respectively.  According to Rock, effective change leaders act to reduce sources of threat and increase sources of reward for their followers.

However, the SCARF model doesn’t explain; (i) differences in the way some individuals interpret reward or threat sources4, e.g., high levels of autonomy might be viewed as threatening, not rewarding, to those taking on unfamiliar or complex work, (ii) the strength of an individual’s “sensitivity” to reward or threat sources5, e.g., some people may care little about their status, (iii) one’s response in situations where both reward and threat sources are equally present6, e.g., when maintaining business profitability, and one’s job, requires firing staff, and (iv) the role the executive attention network plays in monitoring reward–threat networks, resolving conflict and controlling emotions and behaviour7.  Our reactions to change are based on more than automatic responses to reward or threat sources.

Experimental psychologists have long known that anxiety and fear-activated avoidance behaviours are stronger and more persistent than reward-activated approach behaviours4.  Hence, threat sources are more powerful motivators of behaviour than reward sources.  Fear drives three forms of behaviour in a change environment; (i) ‘flight’, e.g., leaving the organisation when such a choice is safer than remaining, (ii) ‘fight’, e.g., active resistance against the architects of change, or a united effort against an external threat, or (iii) ‘freezing’, e.g., failing to respond or act at all.  However, anxiety almost always leads to delay, caution and risk aversion (e.g., procrastination or passive-avoidant behaviour).  Effective change leaders need to monitor and manage their anxiety and fear, as well as that of their followers – this is the role of the executive attention network.

Anxiety increases when follower’s first become aware that change is looming and its impact remains uncertain (i.e., involving both threats and rewards).  This often leads to behaviours that significantly delay the change process (e.g., passive-avoidance).  Ironically, in these early stages, leaders who attempt to reduce this source of threat unintentionally keep followers in their comfort zone, reinforcing a sense of complacency.  However, fear increases when a potential threat is more immediate and clearly understood.  Whilst fear produces the strongest and fastest response to change – ongoing fear can undermine the change process.  The “burning platform” approach accelerates the change process, but change leaders must be prepared to manage any unintended consequences.  The potential loss of high-performing staff (those with the best job prospects), reputational damage (e.g., confidential information leaking to the media) and industrial unrest (e.g., “working to rule”) must be anticipated and responses prepared well in advance.

  1. Kotter, J. P., 1996. Leading Change, Harvard Business School Press.
  2. Whiting, J., Jones, E., Rock, D. & Bendit, X., 2012. Lead change with the brain in mind, NeuroLeadership Journal, 4, 1-13.
  3. Rock, D., 2008. SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others, NeuroLeadership Journal, 1, 1-9.
  4. Leue, A. & Beauducel, A., 2008. A Meta-Analysis of Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory: On Performance Parameters in Reinforcement Tasks, Personality and Social Psychology Review, 12, 4, 353-369.
  5. Fowles, D. C., 1987. Application of a behavioral theory of motivation to the concepts of anxiety and impulsivity, Journal of Research in Personality, 12, 4, 417-435.
  6. Patterson, C. M. & Newman, J. P., 1993. Reflectivity and learning from aversive events: toward a psychological mechanism for the syndromes of disinhibition, Psychological Review, 100, 4, 716-736.
  7. Posner, M. I. & Petersen, S. E., 1990. The attention system of the human brain, Annual Review of Neuroscience, 13, 25-42.

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