It seems that everything has name. So that got us wondering. Is there a name for the fear of change? Turns out, there is. A strong fear of change is called metathesiophobia. To be more precise, metathesiophobia is the fear of change or changing things. According to www.fearof.net, the origin of the word metathesiophobia comes from Greek ‘meta’ meaning change and phobos meaning fear. But what’s more interesting is that it’s often linked with tropophobia, which is the fear of moving. Fear of change, and fear of moving. The fact that these two are close cousins makes perfect sense. So, to help people in embracing change, how do you make them comfortable with change and moving from point A to point B?
Show future state to help people in embracing change
Embracing change can be tough. Think of moving a home. (Collective groan.) What, if anything, is fun about the actual process of moving? There’s nothing. Well, maybe the very end of moving, when you’re driving or flying to your new home. But otherwise, nothing. It’s filling boxes, switching utilities, cleaning dust bunnies in places you didn’t know existed, maybe switching schools for your kids, finding a new home for stuff you no longer need. The list goes on and on. Even if you hire a professional mover, you still have to get organized to move, which takes time and effort.
What keeps you going? It’s the excitement of being in a different home. One that might be more spacious for a growing family. Or one that’s smaller for an empty nester who no longer wants to deal with the upkeep of extra rooms. It’s the excitement of being in a location that is closer to the things you enjoy, whether that’s parks or restaurants or nature. It’s this future state that you can understand and see in your mind’s eye that keeps you chugging along with the current grind of packing, switching utilities and more. You’re embracing change because you know what lies ahead, and you expect it to be better than what you have today.
This is the sweet spot that leaders and managers need to focus on when it comes to communicating business change.
Influencers of change
For an organization to thrive, its people need to understand the future state. How it looks, feels and, heck, maybe even tastes if you’re a restaurant that’s changing your menu. Embracing change is much easier for employees when they understand the future. And in business, the key influencers or storytellers are top leaders and supervisors.
To be clear, we fully understand that sometimes leadership doesn’t know yet or won’t know until the 11th hour what a change will look like or mean to employees. We know a lot of business decisions are riddled with ambiguity. And we know that the change itself might be all around negative (a business closure is just one of many scenarios). But, let’s face it. If 70 percent of the things that could be communicated were communicated—and communicated well—we suspect many employees would be more forgiving the other 30 percent of the time when you aren’t able to communicate the future. And you’d have more “goodwill in the bank” if the change you are announcing has few upsides (speaking again of that business closure example).
Focus on that 70 percent and you’ll help your teams in better embracing change. And as some employees start to embrace a specific change, they’ll help communicate the upsides of the change to their peers, pushing your efforts along.
How to help employees “move with their cheese”
Let’s get back to the topic of moving. But not a house this time. Published in 1998, Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson is a story about mice and cheese. But not literally. If you’ve never read the book, it’s a fun read. It’s a tale involving four mice—Sniff, Scurry, Hem and Haw—who live in a maze and scurry about looking for cheese to, as the author says, nourish them and make them happy. The cheese is a metaphor for what you want in life. More than 2.5 million copies of this book have been sold worldwide. Not bad for a book about mice and cheese! Spencer, who died in July of 2017, was also the co-author of One-Minute Manager, another best-selling management book.
You can buy the book, or read it online for free, courtesy of The Internet Archive, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, which offers a a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form.
The book nicely lays out how change works, or can work:
They Keep Moving the Cheese
Get Ready for the Cheese to Move
Smell the Cheese Often So You Know When It’s Getting Old
Adapt to Change Quickly
The Quicker You Let Go of Old Cheese, the Sooner You Can Enjoy New Cheese
Move with the Cheese
Savor the Adventure and Enjoy the Taste of New Cheese!
Be Ready to Change Quickly and Enjoy It Again
They Keep Moving the Cheese
Adapting to change faster
Let’s do a deeper dive on Spencer’s fourth step, “Adapt to Change Quickly.” As he states, the quicker you let go of old cheese (accepting you need to move, selling the home, packing it up), the sooner you can enjoy new cheese (new home and location). This is where leaders and managers come in. And eventually employees who are early adopters of a change. Here are some practical ideas to help you communicate change to employees to support them in embracing change more quickly. This is the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a start:
Be visual: If you’re moving to a new office space, show employees, don’t tell them. If you’re moving to a new business method, show them visually how it will work versus just talking about it. Show, don’t tell, whenever possible.
And, be visible: Coach your leadership to be visible during times of high change. Ideally we’re referring to being physically available. But for larger companies with multiple locations, this is simply not doable. If you can’t be there physically, use frequent video messages to provide updates.
Use storytelling: As we’ve outlined in a couple of related blogposts, stories about how a change is making a difference within your organization are powerful and can help reinforce the behaviors you want to see. As a communicator in your organization, you can help your leaders by finding these stories and sharing them with them personally, or through publications or memos.
Be mindful that, depending on the change, some employees might shy away from being an unofficial spokesperson for the cause. But you won’t know until you ask. And keep in mind that sentiment changes over time. We’ve worked with clients whose employees refused to even be associated with a change. Yet later, they saw the benefits and, when asked again, were willing to share their experience. Timing is key.
Reduce competing noise: If you want to bring people on board with a major change sooner, don’t introduce three other initiatives at the same time. Again, as a communications strategist or counselor, you’re able to coach your leadership on the realities of the challenges this will present.
Segment your messages: Recognize that not all employees are in the same headspace at the same time. We all embrace change on different timetables. Recognize this and segment your internal audiences accordingly.
Provide opportunities for dialogue: As we shared in a previous blogpost, two-way communications or dialogue allows employees to exchange ideas, ask questions, voice opinions and engage in active discussion. The benefits are many, notably building understanding and belief around a concept or strategy. Many internal social media platforms or enterprise social networks are out there to help stories and discussions go viral. Just two examples are Yammer and Slack.
Embracing change takes time. Getting from point A to point B often involves many detours. Painting a picture of what the future state will look like has a significant impact on whether—and even if—your internal audiences come to accept or embrace change. If you’re interested in partnering with a team who’s worked with small businesses to nonprofits to Fortune 100 companies help their employees “move with their cheese,” contact us.