Fear Doesn’t Move Us Forward!


“If we do not change now, then our existence will be in jeopardy and then we will soon go bankrupt”. I repeatedly hear such arguments and similar arguments whenever the top management attempts to explain the necessity of making changes to the employees. The message is clear: We are supposed to change because otherwise we must fear the future. Is this truly a good strategy? Whenever I envision what I fear, then this certainly results in no positive reactions. We fear making mistakes, we fear aggressive people, wild animals, or even bosses who need their choleric outbursts in order to calm themselves down. And that changes per se already generate fear is also understandable. Fritz Riemann has already identified the fear of change as being one of the four basic forms of fear. But what do we understand with the word “fear”?


In the Lexicon of Neuro-Sciences, Rüdiger Vaas defines fear “as being the fundamental phylogenetically-evolved warning and protective function,” which drives us “to flight and the active or passive avoidance of situations”. The situation which we wish to avoid is associated with pain, injury and death. In our brain, fear thus triggers an alarm and defence system. If we perceive that threatening situations exist, then, precisely stated, this triggers the warning system twice in us. Imaging processes (positron emission tomography, functional magnetic resonance imaging) show that the amygdala is active during states of anxiety. Stated in a simplified manner, the information from the sensory systems goes across the thalamus directly to the amygdala. This section of the limbic system which, owing to its form, is also referred to as the amygdala assesses in such a few milli-seconds whether the stimulus is harmful or beneficial to us. Threatening stimuli, to which the amygdala sensitively reacts, are faces and facial expressions; anger, aggression or irritation in the face is construed to be very threatening. In this regard, the amygdala responds to perceived signals, both consciously as well as also subconsciously. The second path runs from the thalamus to the cerebral cortex and is substantially slower. For this, this system processes the situation in a precise detail-specific manner. The visual cortex and the hippocampus participate from which specific memories are retrieved – the brain thus compares the current situation with previous experiences.


Whenever changes are supposed to be announced, I thus always advise that firstly the management must be clear regarding its own feelings and emotions and secondly the message must be linked to positive signals. However, in this regard, it is important that both are in harmony because, otherwise, the communication will not seem to be authentic. If managers believe that they can cover up their own fears, then they simply underestimate the ability of our brain. Solely through the facial expression, it is communicated whether the change is generating fear for the manager. Even if we do not already perceive this consciously, then our subconscious will do this for us. That it indeed functions so well has probably ensured our survival during our evolution. The fast route across the sensorial thalamus where sensory impressions are represented only in an "unsharp" manner is necessary for a rapid response – this has always ensured our survival during dangerous situations. The longer route across the sensorial cortex provides greater specificity, but needs twice the time; this would then perhaps also already be too late.


In this regard, the manager’s fear is unfortunately oftentimes understandable. Changes often also place his status in question and/or he knows that, during the course of the process, he will be confronted with new, perhaps even unpleasant situations – and perhaps also his own status will be at risk. How can he then feel positive emotions in such a situation? Initially not at all. If we today expect from middle management during agile transformation processes that it will make the transformation “appetising” to the employees, then this is simply an excessive demand. We demand namely from those persons who see their own existence threatened to also still “sell” this positively. Thus, we must work very intensively on the emotions and feelings of the management and develop perspectives with these managers for themselves which they associate with positive feelings. In this regard, the fundamental requirement is that we permit the managers during this process to freely articulate their fears. Only if we can identify the fear and its triggers will we then have taken an important step for constructively handling our fears. However, what I have repeatedly experienced during change processes is precisely the opposite: It is demanded from the managers that they act “professionally” and there is thus no room for emotions.


Fears are the greatest hindrance during change processes and nonetheless very often the emotions are played on. Let’s finally stop trying to motivate changes with fear. Instead, let’s devote our energies more towards the enjoyment and satisfaction which we want to achieve with the change. Then not only will the change process be positively influenced, but rather this route will then also remain stored positively in our brain; we will then once again retrieve this image and these experiences whenever we see ourselves faced with a new change. The cornerstone for the success of future change will thus already be laid during the current change process.

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