How Leaders Overcome Fears to Implement Change

When confronting fear, it’s important to distinguish between real versus perceived threats, and identify what’s truly “safe to try”

All the upheaval of the past six months has forced companies to throw out their rule book and seek out new ways of working. And yet, despite the need for change; despite the fact that the “old way” clearly isn’t working any more; we often see leaders afraid to try something new, hesitant to act. It’s not the external uncertainty that’s stopping them, but rather, the pressure from within organizations, creating doubts like “how will I be perceived?,” or “how will this affect my standing amongst my colleagues?”

When confronting fear, it’s important to distinguish between real versus perceived threats. Real threats have the potential to endanger an organization’s existence, and the only way to tackle the fear they create is to address the source: what’s causing the threat, and can it be mitigated? If that’s the case, focus on equipping yourself and your team to respond appropriately via a pre-mortem.

But far more common—and more pernicious—are perceived threats; anxiety about what might happen. To be clear, the fear these create is rational, even if the threat itself is highly unlikely to occur. These fears are typically borne from personal experience: we’ve all seen eye-rolling after someone suggests a new idea in a brainstorm, or worse, seen someone’s career affected by an unpopular decision.

As we navigate change, four types of fear typically hold leaders back:

  • Fear of making a mistake. We all make mistakes, but as a leader, yours may be more likely to be held under a microscope.
  • Fear of criticism. We’re living in a “cancel culture.” While it’s impossible to please everyone, it never feels good to be criticized as a leader, especially publicly.
  • Fear of failure. No one wants to feel inadequate, or that they’ve let someone down. As a leader, you shoulder a lot of responsibility when it comes to your team or organization’s success, and at times, it can feel like the results are all on you.
  • Fear of losing power. A leadership position should never be taken for granted—whether accountable to a board, shareholders, or your employees, you have to wrestle with the possibility that a decision you make could impact your position.

To address these fears when implementing a change, first ask, “Is this safe to try?” and then, “Can this be reversed if it doesn’t work?” If the change won’t cause irreparable harm to your organization (or your people)—if it’s relatively easy to undo—you should move ahead. But just because something is “safe to try” doesn’t necessarily make it feel any less scary: it may make sense logically, but emotionally, there may still be a barrier. To keep pushing past the fear, reflect on the following:

  • Why do I have this fear?
  • What would it look like if my fear were realized? What could happen to me, the team, or the organization?
  • How might I respond? Would I learn and grow through this, or would it be impossible to come back from?
  • What specific action might calm this fear?

By naming your fear and taking clear steps to mitigate potential threats, you can move forward with greater confidence.

Published September 21, 2020