Getting Past fear to create positive change

Will Hope Help Us in 2010?

The economy is supposedly slowing coming back. But we’re still facing high unemployment, record foreclosures and news of yet another unethical leader taking investors’ money.  As we head into 2010, we’re tentative in our optimism against a backdrop of fear.

Yet, when it comes to making positive change, does fear motivate us or slow us down?

Imagine that nine patients are given identical diagnoses of heart disease. All will die unless they improve their diet, lose weight, cut back on alcohol and reduce their stress.

How many will make the necessary changes?


Only one, according to a 2005 study authored Dr. Edward Miller, the dean of the medical school at Johns Hopkins University.  “If you look at people after coronary-artery bypass grafting two years later, 90 percent of them have not changed their lifestyle,” Miller said.

In other words, faced with bad news, even death, most people do not change.

Professor John Kotter from Harvard has a theory about why that is true. Having studied change in organizations for years, he believes people are motivated to change not by fear, but by joy and other positive emotions.

“Behavior change happens mostly by speaking to people’s feelings,” he says. “This is true even in organizations that are very focused on analysis and quantitative measurement. In highly successful change efforts, people find ways to help others see the problems or solutions in ways that influence emotions, not just thought.”

Last year a group of leaders from mid- to large-size Phoenix businesses got together to discuss how to change and be successful in these trying times. The session was part of the Arizona Leadership Forum I facilitated with Doug Griffen of the Advanced Strategy Center. We asked the group: “In a business environment dominated by fear, what should leaders do that will make them and their companies successful?”

Many of their responses supported Professor Kotter’s observation that the motivation to change originates with positive emotions.  The group developed three recommendations:

  1. Re-create and re-invent; don’t replicate. Business-as-usual is a recipe for disaster.
  2. Communicate much more than ever before.
  3. Engage and collaborate more deeply within the company and more broadly with other organizations.

Now is the time to get serious about reinventing ourselves and raising the big questions:

  • What is our core mission?
  • Who do we serve?
  • How are we going to serve them in a way that is far superior than we have ever done so in the past?
  • What is this economic downturn teaching us?
  • What is the phoenix that will spring forth from the ashes?

As painful as this economy is, if we are willing to look hard enough—and smart enough—we can find new ways to survive and even prosper. The real challenge is to look past fear and open our minds to the lessons and insights that will carry us to a positive future.