The fear of change. Is it real?

Written by Paul Matthews on 15 July 2015

I was reminded of that old chestnut the other day that people do not like change, and in fact they are afraid of it. I cringe when I hear that for two reasons. One, because it simply isn’t true, and two, because it tends to generate an approach that we need to force people through change despite their fear.

People are not afraid of change. They are afraid of loss.

Think of a change you were afraid of, or just worried about. Was it really the change that was generating the fear? Or was it your thinking about the possible losses you might suffer as a result of the change?

Notice that the fear is due to anticipating loss. Fear is about imagining a future event turning out badly and as a result we suffer some kind of loss. So that begs the question, ‘why would we imagine something in the future going wrong?’

The answer seems to be related to the locus of control. If we feel that we are fully in control of the situation, and the change, then we can ‘make’ it go well, and avoid any loss. We have no fear when we think that we are fully in control. As the locus of control moves outside of us, or outside of people we trust, then we fear in proportion to the probability and magnitude of the potential loss. And of course everyone is different in terms of how much they react to the potential for loss. Some are more laid back by nature, and some are more anxious.

One of the things that definitely moves the locus of control outside of us is if we are uncertain about our own ability to cope with the change. Do we have the knowledge and skills to handle the change and stay ‘in control’? If not, can we get the right kind of support on demand to enable us to cope with the change? If we don’t have the abilities needed to manage/control the change, can we learn them fast enough?

Our perception of our abilities, and our mindset relating to improving those abilities when needed has a massive effect on our ability to deal with the idea of change, and the fear of possible loss. Some think their abilities are relatively fixed, while others are just as certain that they can improve their abilities if the need arises. It is worth having a look at the work of Carol S Dweck if you want to explore this idea of fixed vs. growth mindset further.

There are many change models available to help us understand the stages of the change process, but few of them talk much about alleviating the fear of loss that a change can create. The next time you are considering any kind of change, take some time to put yourself in the shoes of the people involved in the change, and imagine what they may think they will lose. And of course, ask them. You need to find out where the fear comes from.

From a L&D perspective, one of the key things that you can do when assisting people through the change process is not just to provide the support and learning required, but to make it explicitly obvious that this support and learning is readily available and easily accessible for everyone.

As someone facing change, the more support I feel I will get, the more in control I will feel and the less I will anticipate failure or loss. And note that it is my perceptions and feeling that will govern my engagement with the change. It is whether I think I can do it that counts. 

About the author
Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and expert in workplace learning, especially informal learning, as well as management development and employee performance improvement. He is the author of “Informal Learning at Work: How to Boost Performance in Tough Times” and “Capability at Work: How to Solve the Performance Puzzle”. For further information please visit

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