Overcoming a Fear of Tackling Change

Apr 03, 2011 No Comments by

What challenge would you tackle if you truly had nothing to lose?

I was inspired by the story of 66-year old Helen Dunsford of Oakland Park, Florida who authorities say thwarted a bank robbery while those around her remained petrified with fear.

“One Brave Old Lady”: The heroic woman grabbed 32-year-old bank bandit Renee Lee Green of Miami Beach and locked her into a bear hug before tackling her to the ground. Others soon joined in to help subdue the suspect until police arrived. There’s more to the story. Helen has stage 4 cancer and when asked why she intervened, she said:

“… I figured if I’m going to die, it’s God’s will when I die. Shes not going to shoot me.”

A witness to the incident in the Bank of America branch added:

“I was more scared than her, I’ll tell you that. She’s a brave old lady”.

Although it appears that Green may not have had a weapon or a plan to actually rob the bank that day, there is no way that Dunsford or the other customers would have known this when they took action.

Don’t Try This At Home, Kids: When interviewed, a local police officer commended Dunsford – but strongly cautioned citizens that it is NOT wise to get involved the way that she did.

I wouldn’t recommend trying to tackle this guy… Even if he’s only armed with a pencil.

Wise or foolish, her action raises the question: “Why do some people take action in fearful situations while others do not? Do these people learn to be brave or are they born that way?”

What it Means for Change Agents: While I would certainly not encourage anyone to get involved in breaking up a bank robbery, I think the actions of this heroic old lady offer a unique insight for Change Agents about the need to overcome the natural fears we have to taking on change.  Let’s start by considering five reasons people often hesitate to take charge of a difficult change situation:

1.  It’s Not My Job. It’s easy to look around our corner of the world and notice change initiatives that need our help. It’s a a harder thing to personalize that need and recognize it as our responsibility to step in. What to do: Even if a given change doesn’t fit into your job description, I suggest you ask yourself three questions when faced with the question of getting engaged:

  1. First: “Is it a valid need?
  2. If it is valid, ask yourself “Is anyone else going to lead this if I don’t get involved?
  3. …and finally: “Who else could help, but is waiting on the sidelines for someone else to go first?

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Helen got involved in breaking up the bank heist because she was “just plain annoyed” that a would-be bank robber could potentially hurt people and take their money. She saw no one else taking action – so she overcame her fear and took the lead. Virtually everyone jumped to help in once they saw her get involved in the situation.

2.  I Have No Time for This: Change is hard and sometimes it does take considerable effort. For most of us who work all day at a regular job, change initiatives are considered “additional duties”.

It can be very difficult for many of us to say no to the boss when asked to contribute to extra projects, so it seems best to keep quiet.  There can be a natural hesitation to take on work that may obligate us to continued contributions long after our initial involvement.

What to Do: Rather than totally disengaging, consider being up front with your concern for being over-committed.  Offer to help, but be clear about the limits. Set a limit on what you are willing to do even as you take the first steps to contribute.  For example;

  • If you have strong facilitation skills, you may offer to be the person who guides a team that defines the change – but you intend to shift into a “team member” role for the next steps of the effort.
  • If you have a talent for organizing, you may volunteer to capture the work steps needed to execute the change, but you want to pass that plan on to another group to execute it.
  • If you are good at training or communication, you may offer to be ready to deliver on these tasks once the change is well-defined and planned, but make it clear that you’ll need others to get the groundwork laid first.
  • You may step up to be a Champion for the change, but you will only offer to help round up support for the change in your area – and only after you can get a firm commitment from your managers to release you when that work is done.

3.  Where Would I Even Start? Sometimes the work needed to pull of a big change can be daunting.  It can look so big and complex that we can’t even tell where to begin.  What to Do: Step back and look at change as a process. There are hundreds of books and thousands of consultants that offer processes for guiding change. (including me!) Most of these methods involve general steps such as:

  1. Define the change
  2. Secure active sponsorship
  3. Identify communication and training needs
  4. Get everyone on the same page with a documented plan
  5. Round up resources and change agents…
  6. …etc.

My point is not to endorse any one of these methodologies, but to tell you that there are many good ways to lay out the process of guiding change.

Pick one.

Read up on their recommended process and get started with the first step. Don’t try to do it all in the first day, but don’t wait another day to start the first step.
4.  I Don’t Believe in the Cause. My final reason why people hold out is a little harder to overcome.  If you honestly do not believe in what your team is trying to change, it will be very hard for you to get involved – and almost impossible for you to take a leadership role.  You may even be tempted to sabotage the effort.

What to do: In this case, you’ll need to do a bit of soul-searching and ask yourself:

  • “What specifics do I disagree with?”
  • “How would I change the change to make it better?”
  • “Would I recommend a different scope, schedule or pace for the change?”
  • “Do I just disagree with a part of the change, or the whole thing?”

Be specific, constructive and vocal about your concerns. If the entire change is a bad idea, how far are you willing to let the team go before warning them?  If your concerns are valid, the change itself is in danger if you don’t speak up!

Put your concerns on the table. Of course you should do so in a constructive way. For example, it can help to ask questions like “What methods are you going to use to train that many people in just 2 weeks?” rather than making broad general statements like “It’s all going to fail if you do it that way.”

What if the team actually has solid information to address your questions and everyone else is waiting for the same answers?   The longer you sit silently, the longer these ticking time bombs that could undermine your team’s change will go unheeded.

Summary: While breaking up a bank robbery is probably not in anyone’s job description, contributing to successful change should be.  Change efforts can involve a lot of extra work and they don’t happen if good people don’t step up.  So take a page from the playbook of Helen Dunsford: overcome your fear and tackle that change.


Questions for Chatter:

  1. What else causes people to hesitate before stepping up when offered a chance to be a part of a major change initiative?
  2. How do you overcome the most common fears of getting involved?

Incoming search terms:

  • fear change

Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness, Team Dynamics

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I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!
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