How to fight fear of change

Since almost all reform initiatives predicate themselves on changing people, systems, and events, it’s worthy to look at the most powerful mitigating factors in any change or reform situation: fear of change. I think a lot about fear of change in school. It seems to seep up and into every educational practice. We are all guilty, and we justify it and build walls of denial about it like champs. Fear of change is wired into our being. So how do we, as leaders, change agents, and innovators get people over the fear of change?

Sell it as something else.

Ok, bear with me here. I’ve put a lot of thought into this and I think this is a pretty important consideration. Getting people past fear of change is about selling change as power. We usually don’t think about change as power, but look at who the most powerful people tend to be: those who can control their own environments. In essence, fear of change is about fear of control over one’s world, but the great thing about most change is that if a person can usually only control one’s environment in the early stages of impending changes, not the later ones.

Here’s an example: Two veteran teachers realize that at some point the school they are working in will move to a 1:1 environment, which they both fear.  The first teacher, realizing that this change is inevitable, asks to be on the technology committee, and becomes an active voice in the technology decisions in her district. She becomes literate in the different devices and applications that are being discussed. She becomes a very critical voice in the pending change. She makes it clear that knowing what she does, that tablets would be a poor choice for her students, but that if they did go 1:1, laptops would be the best choice. She is ahead of the curve, and though she is still afraid and irritated at the change, she has now steered that change, and has given herself the power needed to own the change. She is invested and will be a great asset to the new system.

The other veteran has decided he will not have anything to do with the impending change. He pooh-poohs the suggestions of what might happen, and in the end needs to be forced to change. He is increasingly negative, panicked and, eventually, obstinate. He feels that if he drags his feet long enough, he will be able to avoid the unpleasantness, yet with every denial and negative action, he makes the change more and more unbearable. Once he is forced to change, he does so begrudgingly, and without investment.  He is likely to be a constant drag on the new system and a cancer on the morale of others.

These two people started in the same place, but ended in quite different states. The big difference here isn’t a positive attitude or any major personality traits. The first teacher simply understood that if she wanted any power over the situation, she needed to lead the change.

In truth, the people who are on the front-end of change suffer least the whiplash effect of change. If leaders and change agents can sell this fact, rather than the rationale for the change, we suggest to people that there is power in proactivity and pain in reactivity. We need to understand that part of the reason many of the leaders and change agents don’t fear change is because we are often the ones controlling the change itself. Loss of control is a scary thing. We need to help people understand that in many cases, the difference between easy transitions and grueling, punishing, excruciating change is  whether or not one is at the front of the change, or at the rear of it.


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