Fear is nothing bad. Rather, fear is a universal and even useful part of the human’s behaviour repertoire. However, fears can also arise too frequently and too intensively or they arise in situations which provide no obvious reason to be afraid, but rather the reason for the fear is artificially generated. A reality is illustrated to the human being of which he is supposed to be afraid and this then triggers the same reactions as if we were already in this situation. Our reactions are then precisely as they are – not because we don’t want something different, but rather because we can’t do something different at all neurologically. And whoever generates fear can control other people. That can be good or can also be exploited. And thus, in recent months, people have operated with fear a lot. It was necessary to control an entire society in its behaviour and the effectiveness was impressive.
First of all, I’d like to make clear: I would in no way like to depict COVID-19 as being merely a harmless illness (as is unfortunately all too often done by conspiracy theorists). As mathematicians, a realistic view of the reproduction figures is sufficient in order for us to know just how very quickly an uncontrolled outbreak can affect our health. However, as organisational developers, the last months were very interesting to observe regarding how the public’s fears were toyed with because we all too often can also observe this phenomenon at companies. For a long time, we have known that physical force can trigger these same reactions in our brain as psychological force and that the fear is only a precursor to the violent act. Already during childhood, this makes us afraid. “If you are not well-behaved, then this will happen … and we then take this learning along with us into our everyday work lives. It is a cause-effect principle which provides suggestions to us — a principle which generates negative emotions.
During organisational changes, we often experience that the necessity for the change is generated through fear. “If we do not implement the reorganisation, then we will not survive” is a very simple message which is however directly connected to a threat to the company’s very survival. But precisely this generates fear of the change. We only then namely are afraid of changes if we regard them as being a threat and feel weak or helpless – thus not having the confidence to be able to deal with new and unknown things. The German neuroscientist Gerald Hüther recently said in an interview with the Berner Zeitung: “Our brain prefers most to have a condition in which everything fits together well. When faced with difficulties, our brain wants to quickly find solutions so that we can once again return to the energy-saving mode.” And all this is only rarely the case during a change process.
However, even in such situations, there are quite different people; there are people for whom fear is a completely foreign word: Even when faced with major changes or even with catastrophes, they remain calm or even tend to become careless in situations in which fear normally would take an important protective function. Via functional magnetic resonance tomography (fMRT), neurologists have found out that, in the brain, a circuit for fear and flight can compete with another circuit – namely the circuit which suppresses fear. Those who generate a higher fear response show strong activity in the amygdala (also called in German the “Mandelkern” in our brain). The amygdala is already known for its importance during the development of fear. However, apparently, increased fear also coincided with extraordinarily minimal activity in the ventral prefrontal cortex. This section of the forebrain is responsible for evaluating and overcoming fears and worries. We are thus able to regulate our fear in this area of the brain.
Thus, there is another way. We should reinforce the positive experiences via the prefrontal cortex. This reinforces our need for security and we do not experience the change as being a destabilising factor. Our action is the means to the end of attaining a positive development. We take action autonomously with a high degree of self-responsibility, but also with our interactions with our fellow human beings and/or colleagues. Fear moves us over the short term and that is easy. One can overcome this tendency towards the short-term by pursuing a longer-term goal in which one believes. Just as we need the positive image of the future during a successful change process, then we also need during times like these – and more than ever – an image of in what direction we want to lead the company after the Corona crisis – in this case, good policy is highly necessary. Only then we will be able to overcome the crisis without fear.
In September, the new book from Gerald Hüther is supposed to be published which is called: “Ways out of Fear”. I look forward to reading his insights and perhaps we can also once again integrate one idea or another and/or research finding for the organisational design.
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