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When a fear of change is not about change at all

I recently sat in a presentation that discussed Alpena’s lingering “fear of change” that rears its head whenever projects are met with disagreement. On the surface, it may look simple and straightforward. Organization A, would like to do project B, to get outcome C. Despite efforts to move forward, people cry out in resistance, and it’s chalked up to the good old fear of change.

It’s a go-to response whenever people question a proposed project, dislike a new development, or get riled up when new things happen that weren’t expected. Yes, there are a handful of people who do not want anything to change and are pretty surly about it. In my experience, though, there is usually a deeper query behind the mask we call “fear of change.”

People are perceptive, but can’t always articulate what they sense. When a person opposes something, it may be because they don’t have all the information to make sense of the issue. When a person appears to be excessively fired up about a proposed change, it may be because they tried asking questions to gain a better understanding of the situation, but were ignored or pacified. And sometimes, especially when a person feels that they were misled, a protest against proposed changes is really a call for transparency.

We’ve all seen these situations play out in communities where we live, at work, at school or church, with organizations we belong to, and even at home.

I’ve been on both ends of this spectrum. For example, sometimes when my husband comes to me with an idea, I instantly respond with, “No.” On the surface, it looks like I don’t want anything to change (with the house, our routines, or whatever the case may be). I didn’t even realize I did this until he brought it up.

After thinking about it for a while, I realized that I gave an automatic “no” because I need more time to think about the idea, get more info, and weigh out the options. But instead of saying that, I just went with a quick and easy “no.” I’ve also been one who surges forward with “wonderful” ideas, only to hit speed bumps and seemingly illogical opposition. If you are the one pushing forward with changes, it is much easier to assign someone to the “just afraid of change” category, and move forward, regardless of whatever danger signals they may be flashing.

But this isn’t always the right thing to do.

On the other end of things, I’ve tried to acquire a better understanding of some issues that don’t seem to make sense, and I’ve been ignored, placated, and called a troublemaker, and I’ve been given misinformation on purpose.

I’ve learned over the years — both from personal experience and from many good mentors — that if something doesn’t make sens,e don’t be afraid to question it, and don’t give up until you achieve clarity. Occasionally, a simple misunderstanding turns into a total revolt. Correcting the simple misunderstanding early on can lead to more cooperative outcomes, but both sides have to be willing to listen.

Giving people a chance to be heard and really taking in what they say is also helpful to prevent negative outcomes. Sometimes, all that a person needs is a chance to be heard and know that their comments are honestly considered. Occasionally, people smell something fishy, question it, and are pushed away with hollow justification. When they realize they were not taken seriously or were deceived, they are rightfully outraged.

What might be behind resistance?

Consider some potential reasons for an aversion to a proposed change:

1) The idea lacks logical justification and a fear of change in this scenario is really saying that “no change” is better than “bad change” that lacks foresight.

2) People don’t have all the information they need for the thing to make sense. Fighting change in that situation really means, “Please slow down and provide more information, something is missing.”

3) People are trying to hold an organization or person accountable to do the thing that makes the most sense. Maybe the conclusion doesn’t match what was proposed. In that situation, a resistance to change is actually saying, “Prove your work,” like during a math test in elementary school. Please be accountable and transparent with your reasoning and methods, so we can see why you are proposing this change.

How do you respond to change? And, conversely, how do you engage with people who question changes you may propose? Do you listen and consider, or do you give them a “fear of change mask”? Behavior that looks like a fear of change may be discomfort in the unknown, or it may be a voice that feels unheard, a need for more information, or a call for accountability.

Mary Beth Stutzman’s inspiring A-Town runs biweekly on Tuesdays. Follow Mary Beth on Twitter@mbstutz.

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