Fan the flames of enthusiasm or quench them with the ‘fear factor’?

An earlier version of this was first posted on 3rd May 2012

If we hear the word ‘change‘, what are the things that spring to mind..?

Improvement, Worry, Fear, Concern, Insecurity, Challenge, Hassle, Waste, Opportunity, Disruption, Re-birth, Insecurity, Freedom, ?

Fear (or at least ‘worry’) is a natural response and is certainly a term often mentioned by commentators on organisational change as an issue to handle with care.

‘Resistance’ is another common term which in some cases may be fear disguised as bravado (although remember that resistance may also be a source of strongly held, and potentially helpful, alternative views – see: Resistance is useful: a new assumption?).

This begs a question – is fear the dominant emotion of a changing work environment? Does it have to be?

The answer lies in the culture of the organisation. This is the combination of norms, behaviours, values, rules, and conversations that people commonly have. It is the social environment promoted, tolerated and endorsed (even by neglect), largely by leaders.

Is change a difficulty, a problem, a challenge, an opportunity or something that you are just going to have to put up with? What are the messages, stories and perspectives that we demonstrate, repeat, encourage and expect? Is it possible to eliminate a sense of fear by the way we explore and discuss the issues of change?

Of course our views and behaviour are only part of the wider picture. There is also the fear of stepping out and being different, or of ‘raising your head above the parapet’ by doing things differently (with the implication that your head is likely to get shot off!).

It is also not unusual to stumble across incidences of fear being applied (by ‘management’) as a tool to get people to do things.  This might be apparent in the way in which meetings are constructed, how conversations are initiated by leaders, in the ways that objectives are set, in responses to feedback, ideas or proposals. When established behaviours contrast with the stated expectations (for innovation, improvement, sharing or other working values), we need to be ready to challenge the old orthodoxy.

Every manager needs to understand, as Frederick Herzberg noted in his landmark 1968 Harvard Business Review article, if you kick a dog it may move (out of fear) but is NOT motivated. Fear causes a fight/flight response in people, which focuses on generating action to avoid the cause of the fear and not on producing better work or doing things more effectively (Aguayo, 1990). The fight/flight response driven by people who use fear often causes hiding, running or cheating and none of these things lead to positive change which is what the organisation really needs. Sometimes leaders need reminding of this; Herzberg’s 48-year-old article has been re-issued at least five times (most recently in 2008) and still remains relevant. People are motivated from within – they themselves must want the change and it is these motivations which will make things happen.


Aguayo R. 1990, Dr Deming: The American who taught the Japanese About Quality, Mercury, London.

Herzberg, F. 1968, “One more time: how do you motivate employees?”, Harvard Business Review, vol. 46, iss. 1, pp. 53–62

Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.

2 thoughts on “Fan the flames of enthusiasm or quench them with the ‘fear factor’?”

  1. I think the key thing as a manager is to realise that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to change within a team doesn’t work. Everyone is different and will react to change in a different way. Although time consuming and potential a bit of a chore for a manager, it is necessary to consider and weigh up how the different personalities in your team will react to changes and determine how best to reach each individual and motivate them through. Rationalising or contextualising a change to a more emotionally driven individual is unlikely to be much use, whereas engaging with them in a more empathetic and practical manner may. Conversely, sugar coating and skirting around the requirements may not lead to the best outcome with a very rational minded person.

    1. Yes – it is vital that you know the path that each of your team members’ are treading – including how they are likely to see things. Second you need to know whether the change intervention is about the work, the team’s interactions, or an individuals performance. As a general rule if you focus on the work, then you are on common ground. Focus on the team and it gets woollier (uncertain). Focus on an individual and you end up dealing with loads of unknowns. Two basic areas of common ground exist – the work being done (how good is it, how could it be improved?) – and human dignity – give the other person space to be themselves. If your approach to leading change erodes the focus and boundaries of either of these things you will end up in a mess.

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