Mastering the Fear of Change

By Jane Adamson

” … instability is permanent, change is accelerating, disruption is common and we can neither predict nor govern events. We believe there will be no new normal. There will only be a continuous series of not normal times … “

So write Jim Collins and Morten Hansen in their book Great by Choice. They also take note of the fact that “the dominant pattern of history isn’t stability, but instability and disruption.”

Change, then, is the status quo. The silent question that many CEOs and company leaders are asking themselves in private moments is: “How do I get past the fear and embrace this challenge?”

It’s an honest and very real question. Leaders don’t want to appear vulnerable. Or as not knowing all the answers … Or being wrong from time to time … Or being indecisive … Or lacking vision.

Let’s be honest: It’s each person’s powerful emotional brain causing the discomfort. It’s not caused by the logical side of the brain, which knows that change is, by its nature, unpredictable and oftentimes stressful, and that no one has all the answers.

Fear of the unknown isn’t something that will just go away because we want it to. However, we can mitigate the negative effects of that fear by elevating the skills and best practices that are employed by strong leaders at all times (but especially during times like this).

Strong Leaders:

    • Don’t pretend to know all the answers. They do become very skillful in asking good questions and in listening. They ask questions of their customers, of their company, of their key leaders and managers, and of the market influencers outside the company. Great leaders ask, listen and learn with discipline and diligence.
    • Trust the gut, AND verify with empirical data. They don’t blindly jump without gathering some degree of evidence as to what works and what doesn’t. Strong leaders create a culture of gathering data, testing, making improvements and testing again. Strong leadership teams adopt a culture of consistently challenging assumptions without blame or judgment. Assumption testing is a team requirement.
    • Demand excellence in performance standards and in execution of those standards. If companies know how to execute, they are also adept at changing quickly and knowing when to change. Metrics guide them, and a clear process allows the company to adjust and transition without chaotic results.
    • Facilitate honest conversations. Strong leaders ensure that the real issues are raised, debated, and resolved. That means accepting criticism with an open mind. That means speaking the truth even when it’s uncomfortable. That means never, ever, shooting the messenger.
  • Create a process of periodic strategy reviews so that the company pauses long enough to make thoughtful adjustments to strategy based on changing conditions, while also still staying aligned and committed to results.

When these practices are employed every day as part of the corporate culture, the whole company keeps its collective eyes wide open and understands the importance of both staying focused on the shifting marketplace and being receptive to new ideas and approaches.

A CEO embraces the challenge of disruption by accepting the concept that the future is unpredictable, and then puts practices into place to prepare for what cannot be predicted.

Jane Adamson is the CEO and founder of Phoenix-based Sherpa Advisory, which guides companies through the growth stages that require mid-size companies to “do” all the things that large companies do, but with limited resources. She has been the president of two manufacturing/service organizations, sat on industry and professional boards, orchestrated the successful turnaround of a financially distressed organization, and implemented numerous performance management processes. Jane can be reached at
Originally published: Nov 27, 2011

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