When Proposing Change, Try Reducing the Threat Level First

Good managers work hard at pushing fear out of the workplace. Yet, even in the healthiest of organizations, fear’s close cousin, anxiety, worms its way into our consciousness and governs how we process and react to the idea of change and each other. Skilled change leaders in the workplace understand this human reaction to new and different ideas and work hard to reduce the threat level when proposing something new.

“What does this mean for me?”

We’re skittish creatures by nature and anxiety manifests in our minds in many ways, including insecurities surrounding change, worries over encroachment on responsibilities we perceive as ours, and concerns surrounding our social standing, particularly with those in positions of power.

I don’t care how carefully you plan your presentation on the new strategy or the rationale for a significant change in process, the primary thought running through everyone’s mind is, “What does this mean for me?” It’s a short drive to the next destination: “Does this mean I won’t have a job?

Anxiety over change is amplified in group settings, with some railing at the injustice and promising resistance and others quietly processing on the worst case scenarios.

Not Broken—Just Human

It’s easy to suggest these anxious or fearful individuals might reflect a broken culture and poor management—and in some situations this is true. However, blaming management without digging deeper into the source of the anxiety is a potential mistake.

In a recent study cited in Harvard Business Review and published in the Academy of Management Journal, the study’s authors suggest: “People fear that after the change, the organization will no longer be the organization they value and identify with—and the higher the uncertainty surrounding the change, the more they anticipate such threats to the organizational identity they hold dear.

Armed with the insights that the idea of change breeds anxiety—either due to personal insecurity or, out of fear of loss of something good—employing a strategy to reduce the threat level is essential in your attempt to persuade others to support and engage in pursuing your ideas.

How to Reduce the Threat Level and Persuade Others to Join Your Cause

We’ve all been on the receiving end of impassioned executive pleas and long, drawn-out slide presentations on why we need to change. In almost all cases, those presentations fail with a dramatic thud. We change—or, we embrace change when we can connect it to our individual and group well-being. And, let’s face it, data and logic are no match for the power of emotions. Skilled persuaders approach every situation understanding the need to address emotions first, and tackle facts and data as subtext for the emotional appeal.

5 Approaches for Reducing the Threat Level as Part of the Change Process

1. Read-the-Room, and then Read-the-Individuals

The phrase “read the room” makes excellent sense when proposing new ideas and approaches. If you’re navigating a group-wide change, look to prior examples of the group accepting or rejecting change. Is the culture of the group strong and change viewed as a threat to something they hold dear? Are concerns over personal interests governing their responses to new ideas? What are the quietest people in the room thinking?

After gauging culture and the general zeitgeist around change, I counsel working with each individual to understand their views and ideas on what this change means to them. Your one-on-one involvement arms you with critical insights for subsequent steps and importantly, starts the process of nudging the threat level down a bit. People appreciate being consulted and this tends to reduce their perception of the threat level.

2. Small Bites, Please! From Resisting to Listening

Help your colleagues consume the idea of change one bite at a time instead of expecting them to process it in one big gulp. While your gut tells you to dazzle your coworkers with a brilliantly constructed, logical, and data-backed proposal, and then go for the close, in reality, you need to guide each person through a series of steps.

The Persuasion Cycle outlined by Dr. Mark Goulston (with attribution to others) in his fabulous book, Just Listen, suggests we tend to move in step-functions—from resisting to listening to considering to doing to glad-we-did. This first step—from resisting to listening—is your initial goal when proposing something new in the workplace.

3. Show Them You Really, Really Like Them!

Another worthwhile resource for workplace persuaders, 27 Powers of Persuasion, by Chris St. Hilaire, with Lynnette Padwa, counsels us to find a way to project an appreciation for everyone in the room.

Don’t discount how important it is that people feel liked and appreciated, particularly when it comes to convincing them to join your cause. St. Hilaire suggests striving to find something you like about everyone in the room—or, in this case, in the group you are trying to convince. While this may prove difficult with some characters, the author suggests flipping perceived negative attributes into positives—for example, “She’s stubborn,” to “She’s resolute.”

Like it or not, people recognize if you like them and even the most hardened of change resisters wants to be liked. Pull this off with authenticity, and watch the threat level drop some more.

4. Walk in Their Shoes

Everyone operates with their version of reality, and skilled persuaders are masters at drawing out these often very different views and aligning their proposals in terms that fit for each person. What I love about this guidance is that it forces us to acknowledge that we are unlikely ever to change anyone’s predispositions. We can leverage them, but we cannot change them. As St. Hilaire suggests in 27 Powers, “Recognize your audience’s reality, align it with yours, and create a common goal.” Just remember, this is best handled at the individual level, as different factions within every group have very different views and versions of their reality.

Once you are walking and working in their version of reality, the threat level plummets.

5. Give Power—Early and Often

Once you’ve cracked through the barrier separating resisting from listening, the work shifts to helping people take that slightly smaller but still significant step to considering. A robust approach for engaging others and pushing through the remaining barriers is to give them selective power along the way. Several of my favorite questions include:

  • “If you were to pursue this approach, how would you design it?”
  • “Under what circumstances would you consider moving forward with this program?”
  • “What are the options you perceive for us to tackle this challenge?
  • “If you were leading this initiative, how would you go about it?”

The questions encourage individuals to frame the situation in terms of their reality, and you are effectively soliciting their help in designing the way forward. A key here, however, is to let people define and choose amongst their options and approaches. When working with people to adopt a new approach or process, your motivation needs to be on the broader issue and less on the method. Your win is the change—not how the change is brought to life.

Give power and watch resistance and the threat level melt.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Anything to do with change breeds anxiety and in physics terms creates resistance and friction. Our natural response is to apply more force, effectively increasing costly, energy-wasting resistance and friction. Alternatively, finding ways to address the psychology of change situations and reduce the perceived threat level helps dissipate the resistance and friction. It turns out, the best approaches to bringing the threat level down have their roots in courtesy, consideration, and involvement. Skillful persuaders and change leaders in the workplace use this insight to their benefit and the organization’s gain.

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About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

2 Comments

  1. Carlos Viera August 30, 2018 at 4:18 pm - Reply

    It is all too often that change is introduced into an organization and the fear builds surrounding the change. For those like myself that are new in business and are just beginning our journey educationally towards a business management path it is easy to allow those fears to get the best of us, and to allow this to impact our performance, and even how we are accepted and welcomed into the workplace. This article provided some great insight how one can effectively calm those fears and ensure that change is positive in an organization and that even when questions exist one can effectively communicate and ask questions that show interest in better understanding what the change entails and why it is needed.

    • Art Petty August 30, 2018 at 6:01 pm - Reply

      Carlos, thanks for your thoughtful comment! You have a great perspective on navigating change. Best of success! -Art

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