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Confucius famously cursed us to live in interesting times: reading recent blogs and newsletters, I’m picking up a rather different adjective – fearful. Even the usually cheerful Euan Semple started his most recent newsletter with the subheading ‘Paranoia’, although his specific reference was to online privacy and how you might take a few steps to maximise it. Yet fear has the potential to stalk our working lives in other ways. The blog, The Illusion of Work, recently published a post by Ian Gee called The Tyranny of Transitions, looking at the Kübler-Ross Curve, widely used with reference to organisational change, but originally grounded in work around individual’s responses to grieving. Gee’s article ponders how far organisations may potentially overload individuals with dealing with the emotional transitions of overlapping cycles of change, especially where previous experience may have taught them to be wary or to anticipate difficulty.

If they are stuck, do we make the assumption that this is an expression of resistance, personal weakness or failing? In doing so are we unleashing what I am now thinking of as ‘the tyranny of transitions’ on them? Rather than accepting that like the grief associated with the death of a loved one the grief, sadness, fear and anxiety occasioned by organisational change is never truly closed but only subsumed. As we experience more and more organisational change an undercurrent of fear and anxiety builds and builds and impacts directly on our capacity to reach out to the new change with any true sense of optimism and engagement.”

If we are dealing with people whose response may be effectively summarised as ‘once bitten, twice shy’, how can we help them be either less expecting that another bite is coming or more willing to face the potential risk more optimistically and more resiliently? Interestingly, one of the more outspoken critics of the Kübler-Ross model, George Bonanno, stresses both the existence and the importance of resilience: while the concept is gaining ground in learning and development circles, the criticisms made of Bonanno – not least that his thesis is simplistic – are also perhaps inevitable in a sphere where an existing model has become so thoroughly established. (For an article that gives an introduction to the debate, see the New York Times.)

Gee’s recommendation – that the designers of interventions develop an understanding of the population it will affect, and of their past experience – is one that we would endorse: developing constructive and informed relationships makes most challenges easier to not just face but overcome. And there is much to be said for ‘being there’ for people throughout the challenge, rather than just framing it positively at the start: this is a topic that we explored in an article published in PersonnelZone where, as we pointed out:

As a leader, you cannot forcibly drag – or better yet, teleport – your team to the upward swing of the Kubler Ross curve: the journey towards success and the realisation of not just strategy but potential is unavoidable. But you can be clear about intentions, and encourage and support all the way as they step towards their goals.”

But a fearful environment is to be avoided for other reasons too, and can arise in unexpected organisations, as a recent article at Training Journal – Do Scared People Innovate – explores. A nexus of stakeholder demands, constant organisational change, increased monitoring and measurement and the job security fears that come with external economic challenges can quickly create a micro-managed organisation with its backs, rather than its clocks, constantly being watched. As the author points out, this isn’t healthy for an organisation that should be focused on looking – and moving – forward:

An innovative organisation encourages every individual to be constantly looking to implement value-creating ideas that fall within their sphere of control, creating a culture of experimentation where people aren’t scared of every tiny repercussion.”

Unhealthy, fear-driven organisations also sow the seeds of their own destruction at a more simplistic level: given most people’s preference for a workplace that values the positive impact of trust, they will leave one that doesn’t provide it given half a chance.

Not all fear has negative consequences – the stress of an impending deadline, the fear of doing a poor job that motivates a better performance, and the fear of letting yourself down can give us a shot in the arm that might be needed from time to time. But nobody needs to be shot in the arm all day, every day: even rifle-range targets get time off. The broader and deeper impact of fear is something that Chris Welford explored in an article for HR Magazine earlier this year:

Perhaps the consequences of fear are not fully understood. Maybe it’s not widely appreciated that fear is the number one enemy of creativity and that the anxious mind is rigid and limited as it seeks to solve a problem in more or less the same way, time and time again. Perhaps some leaders confuse superficial compliance with real progress, but fail to notice the corrosive effects of passive aggression or the exaggeration of the strengths in those that they lead to the point that they become weaknesses.”

Fear can also draw the walls in closer in another, more insidious way: fearful people are also timid, their comfort zones incrementally diminishing. This might be what Harold Jarche was driving at in one of his recent posts, when he said:

Process improvement is bad for innovation. It makes you myopic.”

His point, I think, was to counsel against drawing the circle too tightly, in being afraid to ask bigger questions or to challenge fundamentals rather than small details. Or, to put it another way, limiting conversation – however implicitly – to the design of the carpet tiles does nothing to help anyone address the elephant in the corner who is currently standing on them.