Where leaders & gurus get it wrong: fear-based change is useless. Period.

ingevoerd op 20-09-2018

Burning Platforms? Nothing but smoke!
The first thing I learned as an eager young man ready to make a dent in the world of change management was that I, or anybody else wanting to create lasting change, would need to discover or create a burning platform. I proudly told the story many times of oil-rig workers standing on a platform that was burning and that those who chose for change (jump off the rig into the cold sea where you will live 5-10 minutes instead of staying there where you will burn immediately) were the ones who actually survived. To my unutterable shame I never considered what that must actually feel, like, to make a life or death decision in an instant, and to pay the ultimate price for making the wrong decision. By burning to death. Now that I am supposedly old and wise I think: what the hell does that have to do with the reality of human beings gearing up their loins to make a change or not? Not a lot!

You see, the assumption underlying the premise of a burning platform is that human beings need a sense of danger, and ultimately fear in order for them to change in a sustainable way. Now think for a moment. How effective is behavior that you change out of fear? What does that mean for your state of mind while you are actually behaving in the ”right” way? How motivated will you be to improve that behavior or way of working? How much energy will it bring you? Children who are threatened into behaving well learn to carry and nurture grudges. And guess what? Adults do the exact same thing! So repeating over and over again that the company is about to sink, that the competition is about to eat our lunch, that our sucking at quality will be the downfall of us all does indeed create a platform. A platform of fear. And fear sucks out all energy, fear causes tunnel vision in terms of solving problems and fear eats away at a human being’s sense of self, self-respect and sense of empowerment. Burning platform indeed.

I am now convinced that Kotter, who popularized the burning platform and every other well meaning leader who is a fan of the drill sergeant’s raining down brimstone and hell-fire to get the troops moving are living in la-la land when it comes down to achieving meaningful and lasting change. And don’t get me wrong: facts are friendly. Knowing the facts of a situation is absolutely necessary to be able to determine how we must change - but that is something totally different from using those same facts to scare the living daylights out of everybody to ensure something happens.

Success in the past & blank slates are the motor: failure is the monkey wrench
One of the corollaries of fear-based change is that we must learn from the past what not to do (learn from our failures) in order to change more successfully in the future. Here is a wild idea for you: our subconscious is actually incapable of registering the word ”not”. So if we go to the past to learn from our failures in terms of what not to do, what is sticking to our synapses is everything but the word ”not”. Back to children again - remember the reaction of a four year old to instructions like: ”don’t touch that window!” or ”don’t throw that spoon!” The glint in the eye of the little one before they do exactly what you asked them not to? That’s the mechanism. And so it is in adult life: telling ourselves to avoid putting energy into naysayers, or to make sure that we do not take unnecessary risks has very little currency in terms of succeeding at what we want to accomplish. In fact, in an environment where we are continually told what not to do we come masters of the work-around...don’t we?

What can we do then? How do we deal with the fact that the oldest part of our brain is naturally wired to ward off danger, focusing on what went wrong, and fearing that it might happen again? Well, it starts by accepting the fact that we naturally have this negative slant in us. And it does help us identify stuff that is dangerous or risky. But in order to truly succeed we then start exercising a different mind muscle. We go back to the past for the times where we succeeded, where things felt good, where they really worked. We put our brainpower to work to discover and analyze what it was that we or others did that made a change work, and by gum we put our egos aside and actually go and find people who were successful at a similar change and ask them how they did it. And then we put what we (re-)learned to work in the new situation - and we discover what else we need to learn or practice in order to succeed.

And if the problem is entirely new, unknown, we start from a blank slate, as the Zen masters say, with a beginner’s mind, and trust the process – that focusing anew in a safe environment will bring resolution.  The question is really very simple - what did you learn the most from, when did you grow the most - in a situation where there was trust, passion, great ideas and great collaboration to execute, or in a situation where the crap was hitting the fan and everyone looking for an umbrella? And even then, even in those situations where there was fear, where you did panic - where was the turning point? I bet it had something to do with going quiet, becoming quite in yourself, in the team and sharing a resolve to get this right, to fix this. Again, a positive starting point, rather than a fear-based one.

Making it stick: a constructive slant on consequences
So now that we know that operating from our strengths, learning from positive ways of conquering adversity in the past & using a blank slate is a much better alternative to this burning platform thing, how do we make change stick? Well, I am fervent advocate of the art of consequence. We need to articulate consequences to buying into or opting out of a change. But again, each consequence needs to be a solution-based, positive building block. Those who opt in get praise, recognition, a bottle of wine, a place in the spotlight during a team get together, more responsibility, a hug (where culturally appropriate). Those who opt out get the attention and support they deserve to make a different choice if that is the better, healthier thing for them to do. And yes I am talking about those conversations where it becomes clear that not being on the bus means finding other options for work, either within our outside the company. In essence, what this means in terms of the way leaders communicate is at least threefold.

First of all, a leader should start the conversation by crossing over, starting on the other side so to speak: understand the state of mind and the context of the person she is talking to. Secondly, in order to build bridges, it is necessary for the leader to summarize, literally repeat the key words that have just been spoken: it shows the leader has seen, heard, understood, recognized and respected the other person.

Then, when room has been created for the leader’s own contribution, fact-based, and clear story telling is key, covering scenarios of acceptance and rejection equally: what it means, how it will impact the person, the organization, and how they will be treated, supported and guided. Let’s ultimately be grownups about consequence: let’s articulate it, and follow through in the sense of being human beings rather than human doings. Let’s put fear where it belongs – as a trigger or something to resolve through positive thinking, constructive action and using that which we so need to see and admire in each other: our strengths and our vulnerabilities.


Thomas Swaak is an expert in innovation driven transformation, change management, program management & implementation, group dynamics, team excellence and Lean/Agile. He works fulltime at  Philips Innovation Services/Industry Consulting (https://www.innovationservices.philips.com/looking-expertise/industry-consulting/change-management/?utm_source=linkedin-ic&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=lp-ic-change-management&lipi=urn%3Ali%3Apage%3Ad_flagship3_profile_view_base_recent_activity_details_all%3B0PBpbuJDQ6CIh8rHLYLJmQ%3D%3D&licu=urn%3Ali%3Acontrol%3Ad_flagship3_profile_view_base_recent_activity_details_all-object) and runs a private practice as an integrative coach/counselor – www.deessentialist.nl (http://www.deessentialist.nl)

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