Exposing Fear Of Change

Fear of change is subtle. It operates under the radar convincing you that it's there to protect you and keep you safe.

In reality, fear of change is one of the most common reasons for resistance to change because it stops you taking any action at all.

Earlier this year I met with a client who was facing retrenchment after working in the same company (a bank) for 30 years. She was terrified by the prospect of being forced to think beyond the boundaries of her known world. It literally paralysed her mind. fear of change stressed woman

A coaching client of mine has many brilliant ideas for his future, but is frustrated because he doesn't seem to get anywhere with any of his plans.

In both cases fear of change holds them back. It cannot be seen and convinces people to strongly deny that it's there at all. It convinces you that change is not good for you and that it can protect you from being hurt, or from hurting others. I often hear its attempts to convince people they are not good enough anyway.

This page is an attempt to expose fear of change and give you insight into how it may be operating in your life, or in the lives of colleagues or groups at work. In most cases it is responsible for any resistance to change you are experiencing.

Effects of Fear of Change

In most cases fear of change stops us from taking action. And generally it works with anxiety, self-doubt and guilt to help it do this.

Anxiety: While some anxiety is useful and can motivate us there are times when anxiety about something new can severely limit us.

Especially if there's uncertainty about the future.

High levels of anxiety are often brought about by

  • rumours about change,
  • self doubt,
  • uncertainty,
  • disregard for values

and this can be crippling.

Identifying and addressing these issues as they affect you or others can reduce anxiety.

Often a good reality check can be very helpful too. Making time to find out if the rumours are true might relieve a lot of unnecessary anxiety, for example.

Anxiety and Fear of Change work together.

Anxiety stops us taking action in our lives and makes us resist change by stirring up fears of what is not known. Often certainty is more comfortable than uncertainty. The anxiety underlying our fear of change leads to other more specific fears that support a resistance to change. You might recognise these examples:

  • Fear of the unknown: uncertainty about the future, especially if you are expected to take a 'leap of faith' or do not have sufficient information, can result in anxiety.

    fear of change concerned man


  • Fear of failure: tied closely to the need for perfection this fear promotes anxiety about not getting things right. It makes sense that the best way to avoid the pain of failing is not to do anything at all.

    Yet failure is the only way to succeed. Think of Edison's failed light bulbs before the one that worked. Successful business owners have a list of failed attempts behind them. It's the way we learn. John Maxwell calls it 'Failing Forward' - a useful read to challenge your attitude towards failure.

  • Fear of success: Marianne Williamson's words, often incorrectly attributed to Nelson Mandela:"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?" It's as if we don't believe we deserve success.

    Concern about the meaning of success leads to anxiety. We have beliefs about what successful people are like, and our fear is that we might become like them if we are successful. We believe that we might lose friends or exploit others, for example. To reduce the anxiety of this fear of change means that now more than ever we need to know our values and remain true to them.

  • Fear of loss: loss is often associated with change. Change can mean that we lose colleagues, our salary, or even our parking space! Less evident but equally devastating can be the loss of known routines or the things that define who we are (like a job title, or a position).

  • Fear of upsetting others: life coaches are taught to explore the impact of change on other people close to their client. This is because change can have a ripple effect on others. Of course, this can be positive. But the fear of upsetting others can cause enough anxiety to severely limit what we do. I've known clients who have refused promotions rather than deal with ill feelings from colleagues.

  • Fear of leaving a comfort zone: like it or not we are creatures of habit. We like our routines and don't like to be faced with uncertainty. But staying in a comfort zone can be detrimental, as one of the characters in 'Who Moved My Cheese?' discovered (I love the lessons about change in this book and recommend it to everyone).

Self-doubt: Self-doubt usually expresses itself in phrases like "I'm...not good enough", "...not clever enough", "...not qualified enough", or "I'm stupid".

Not only do we start believing this about ourselves but we fear that others might discover just how hopeless we really are. Resistance to change becomes a natural option in order to prevent this from happening.

Putting ourselves down in this way stems from a lack of confidence and a fear of change that stops us taking any action. It literally stops us getting ahead in life.

Building self-esteem and self-confidence can counter the effects of anxiety and eliminate fear of change.

Guilt: people that regularly put others' needs ahead of their own are likely to experience guilt if they feel the change they need to make will affect others.

Guilt effectively creates a fear of change in two ways: it makes us feel bad that we're putting our own needs ahead of other people's needs, and then it makes us feel bad because we don't take any action. You can't win!

You'll hear guilt in action in the words people use. They use the words "should", "must", and "have to" often. So they'll say, "I really should do xyz", or "I have to attend the meeting". Maybe you do this?

There's a lovely story Stephen Covey tells in his 7 Habits CD set about a young man who came to excuse himself from a lecture. When Covey asked why he couldn't attend the lecture the student answered "it's because I have to attend tennis training" (or some similar reason).

Stephen Covey asked him what would happen if he didn't go to tennis training and the student said he'd be dropped from the team. "So you choose to go to tennis training rather than attend my lecture", observed Covey.

Stephen Covey makes the point that we need to be aware of our language, and change our "I have to's" into "I choose to", or our "I should's" into "I want to" or "I would like to...".

Focus on the individual

fear of change woman

The fear of change that people hold can be one of the biggest barriers to organisational change. Or to personal change.

While a force field analysis can be useful to assess the broader situation, the time spent really understanding people's individual reactions allows you to intervene where they are at.

Encouraging the involvement of employees early in the change process and allowing them to be part of the process also leads to lower levels of resistance to change and higher acceptance and engagement in the change.

As successful change management is defined by the ability of people to move towards, and accept, the vision for change it is essential to support the process by focusing on the individual.

While resistance to change is not abnormal, understanding people's natural fear of change can help in your planning and change management strategy.



Find a definition of change management here.

Return from this Fear of Change page to read more about Resistance to Change

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