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Kelly Graves


The Building Blocks of Organizational Psychology, Part 1

Overcoming the fear of change

Published: Thursday, March 26, 2015 - 12:09

As a consultant and trainer specializing in the field of organizational psychology, I’ve come to realize that certain psychological conditions that affect individuals also apply to companies as a whole. That makes sense because, after all, a company is nothing but a collection of people.

In this series of articles, I’ll demonstrate how some of these common conditions manifest themselves in organizations, and how change agents can work in overcoming them to foster better communication and ensure higher levels of quality.

Overcoming resistance

To kick off this series, I’d like to focus on one of the primary emotional blocks that the change agent must confront: The deep-seated fear of and resistance to the very act of change itself. Although Darwin’s theory of natural selection played out over the course of hundreds of millions of years, the world of business evolves at a much quicker pace. Therefore, I think we need to augment Darwin’s theory to read as follows: Survival of the fittest in business comes to those who are able to adapt and change quickly and effectively in spite of psychological, business and/or environmental obstacles.

To apply this principle, one must look much deeper than our primal ancestors and seek wisdom from within. This takes courage because there are always doubters who are poised to throw stones at the slightest perceived misstep, and every company has its share of political game players and other “posers.” The benefit to those strong enough to walk through their self-imposed fear and reach the next level of insight is that the personal, career, and monetary advances are often extraordinary.

I was hired years ago to consult with a company we'll call ABC, an internet retailer. The CEO was capable but didn’t want to rock the boat, hurt people’s feelings, or take the chance of losing “good” employees who knew their jobs. Sam was the manager of production for the company. After assessing him and his department it was clear that Sam hadn’t evolved and grown along with the rest of the organization. His communication style was harsh and ridiculing, he played favorites, he had poor logistic skills, and his personal motivation was lacking. All of this trickled down to the people in his department, which resulted not only in the formation of a silo, but in a great deal of finger-pointing, too.

I met with Sam to help him become aware of these shortcomings and to develop improved skills, behaviors, and a better outlook. Sam was more defensive than many, but in most cases this dissipates as trust improves and the person realizes that professional development is normal and necessary. But Sam wasn’t capable of acknowledging his fears and evolving to the next level of his professional development, and ultimately the company let him go. He had confused years on the job with professional experience and development.

Sam wasn’t completely at fault. His previous employers and the current CEO were as much to blame as he. They failed Sam because they were trying to be respectful and avoid conflict, and often communicated their attitudes through vague direction, vague timelines, limited accountability, and inconsistent follow-up. In the end it was detrimental to Sam’s development, and it cost him his job.

John worked for Sam, and during my assessment phase he seemed to possess the right behavior and mindset to be a successful manager. John had a good work ethic, confidence, and humility; enjoyed and could handle responsibility; and understood the difference between strategy and tactics. When Sam was terminated, John received a promotion to become the new production manager. Among other things, I coached John about how to set clear expectations, encourage people, and hold them accountable—the first steps towards learning how to successfully delegate.

Nine elements of change

When introducing change of any kind, for people as well as organizations, one must learn to program the mind before moving on to action. Change starts in the mind and, if properly introduced, the body will follow with appropriate actions, statements, and behaviors. Learning the psychological stages of change will make the normal ups and downs easier to navigate.

There are nine elements of intentional behavior change. These elements, which I have adopted for my work with organizations and business, came from a concept originally developed by Joe Russo, stemming in turn from the work of James O. Prochaska of the University of Rhode Island and colleagues who, beginning in 1977, developed the transtheoretical model of psychology. These nine elements are as follows, as illustrated by the case of Sam and John:

1. Awareness. This is the first test, one which Sam flunked on multiple occasions. He was terminated because he could neither see his limited management skills and poor behaviors nor accept the responsibility to make appropriate changes. John, on the other hand, saw and accepted his limitations, which allowed him to learn and grow.

2. Dissatisfaction. John was dissatisfied with his current skill level and used this to fuel his hunger to learn.

3. Affirmation. People will often justify their present behavior as needed or valued, which prevents them from letting go of harmful behavior. For instance, Sam told me that “employees need to be yelled at to hit production numbers,” and he wouldn’t accept other methods for improving production. In contrast, John easily understood and valued input on how to involve employees to help improve production shortfalls.

4. Responsibility. When John made mistakes he was taught to be honest with himself and his employees. As a result, when John held employees accountable, although they may not have liked it, they respected him and the example he’d set. In time the “original mistake” was seen as normal growth rather than ridiculed, which leads to shame.

5. Personalized goals. John and I worked to improve his management skills and to align specific tasks with measurable results. We focused on properly executed employee performance evaluations to develop both the manager and the employee, where expectations were set and then followed up on periodically (i.e., at 30, 60, and/or 90 days), depending on the performance improvement issue being coached. Today, standard performance reviews are being phased out in many organizations, and evaluation and feedback often happens in real time, within the flow of ongoing work and processes. However it’s accomplished, it’s of the utmost importance that managers set ambitious but achievable goals, hold people accountable, and develop future leaders of the organization.

6. Demoralization. Frustration and demoralization can occur at this stage, when one discovers that the previous steps didn’t automatically produce change. There’s often a mental struggle going on inside the person’s head: One part wants to quit and go back to what’s safe, but the other part knows that working through this stage will ultimately lead to success.

7. Intention. One must be committed. W.H. Murray, of the Scottish Himalayan expedition to Everest, once said (quoting Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), ”Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness…. The moment that one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.”

8. Action. One must take action; plan, execute, measure, refine, and re-execute.

9. Self-support. It can be a challenge to support oneself through the period of vulnerability that occurs right after one lets go of the old familiar pattern of behavior, and up to the point where one begins to feel secure with the new behavior.

The timing under which this intentional change might become actionable may require a week for an employee, or many years for an organizational restructure. However, the concepts remain the same.

John is now one of the “go-to” leaders at ABC. When problems happen in other parts of the company, John is sent to fix them. Why? First, because his department is self-sufficient due to the proper selection and development of subordinate managers. Second, because John knows how to face tough issues squarely and help people work through these normal yet necessary steps. Third, he is trusted by the CEO, his colleagues, and his subordinates.

John proved through the crucible of change that he had the right stuff to learn, to change, to grow, and to advance. Sam did not. Fear of change may be normal, but it doesn’t have to be accepted by the organization. Overcoming fear can lead to a bottom-up revolution of improvement and performance excellence.


About The Author

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Kelly Graves

Kelly Graves is the CEO of Internal Business Solutions, which exists to help organizations overcome their most daunting challenges. The Internal Business Solutions team understands that most, if not all, organizational problems—whether technical, financial, structural, etc.—hinge on improving human communication and processes. Contact Graves at Kelly@InternalBusinessSolutions.com or call (530) 321-5309. Click here to sign up for his free newsletter.


Overcome Vs Eliminate

I propose that a more optimal approach would be to eliminate fear instead of trying to get individuals to overcome fear. Why overcome something that is destructive? Why not get rid of the casue instead of overcoming the effect?

Overcome fear VS Elimination

If I am understanding you correctly, you propose employees or, perhaps leaders, eliminate fear within themselves or others. While this is the ultimate goal we must remember that fear is a normal human emotion like “love.” One cannot simply “eliminate,” remove or legislate fear out of people. Fear “emerges” within a human being when faced with experiences that can harm emotionally, physically or monetarily. Therefore, the obvious choice is to do the opposite of what average human logic would suggest. One must turn and face the fear in order to overcome it.  For instance:

  1. When John VP of marketing is in executive meetings with Frank the CEO, John always hedges a bit and doesn’t provide all of his ideas because Frank has shot him down in the past. There may be many reasons for this but the only way for the duo to get the best ideas and the subsequent best marketing plans out to the potential customer base is for John to work through his fear with Frank. If they do not “work through this” most discussions will result in substandard plans and/or poor execution.

    1. I handled this situation with these two executives a few months back. I had the trust of both so the three of us sat in a room together with them sitting face to face. I had them discuss the dynamic between them and then in an attempt to “extinguish” this dynamic I told Frank the CEO to chew out John for five seconds. When Frank was finished I asked John to chew out Frank for five seconds. At first John could not but Frank and I encouraged John and he finally submitted against all of his inner fear of reprisals from this authority figure (which were totally in his head. Frank was a trustworthy CEO). John did it and there was silence then nervous laughter and then normal laughter. We did this a few more times with general chewing and/or cussing. This broke all the rules but that was the point, sometimes we must break old paradigms that do not work for us anymore. In the end, this was very powerful because the real problem was with John’s fear of authority, or rather, his need for approval from authority, which may have served him well when he was ten or in one of his old positions but not in this organization.  

    2. Next we discussed Frank’s style of dialogue and his need to argue ideas in an attempt to gain the best from his team. I had both of them "teach each other" about how they viewed “heated discussions” and I reframed this as "passion" not "anger." We made huge strides in helping John significantly reduce his fear of authority and John taught Frank how to fight fair as an authority figure.

I hope this response and my example helped clarify this a bit. Thank you again for the question.

Overcome vs. Eliminate

Amen to that.