The terror of change

Blogging on the Harvard Business Review blog site, Professor James R Bailey of George Washington University and Assistant Professor Jonathan Raelin of Bath University in the UK linked organisational change with the fear of death.

Most of us work hard to repress awareness of our own mortality by creating three ‘buffers’ that block out the reality of our eventual demise:

  1. Consistency, which lets us see the world as orderly, predictable and safe
  2. Justice, our code of what’s good and fair
  3. Culture, contributing to and are participating in a larger and enduring system of beliefs.

Anything, such as organisational change, that threatens to penetrate these buffers and expose us to the looming reality of our own death, threatens our very self. The more threatened we feel, the more we dig in and resist or try to escape.


  • The next time you change an employee’s job routine, do what you can to help them see their working world as orderly, predictable and safe despite the changes (for example, by explaining precisely how the change is going to work and discussing what is not going to change).
  • The next time you change the criteria by which you appraise someone’s job performance or what they need to do to earn a bonus, explain carefully how these changes are good and fair.
  • The next time your organisation changes its mission, explain the new mission in terms employees can relate to and feel excited about, explain why the change is needed and explain how they can continue to contribute in the future.

It’s also a good idea to explain change by framing it as an ‘adaptation’ or ‘adjustment’–not to ‘spin’ the change but as a way of helping people see it as less threatening to their very selves.

Discussion questions

Are you consistent in the way you lead and manage people? Do you inform your team well in advance about the whys and wherefores of change to allow them to get comfortable with it? Do you explain how any changes will affect them, how they are fair and just and how they can be part of the changes?