Unfear: An Inside Out Approach to Business Transformation

Millions of people draft a list of optimistic New Year’s resolutions every year. And every year, millions of people rediscover an important truth: change is incredibly difficult. January is the month for resolving, February is the month for reverting to old habits. Organizations struggle with transformation just as much as, if not more than, individuals. In 1988, John Kotter reported in Leading Change, his seminal work, that 70% of all organizational transformation efforts fail. Three decades later, a 2020 study by the Boston Consulting Group found the same success rate for digital transformation, the biggest change imperative for organizations in this decade.

Why is Change So Hard?

Clearly, something isn’t working. In our collective 40 years in the trenches of change management and organizational transformation, we have noticed that most failed efforts share one common feature: they take an “outside-in” approach. In other words, consultants come in, assess the problem, and decide to re-engineer the system. They set up all sorts of new processes. Then, they train the employees to implement the brand-new procedures. The consultants leave, and the organization changes for maybe a few months. It worked! People get more done, faster, and better. But then, almost inevitably, the progress erodes, and the company ends up with nowhere near the results it set out to achieve at the start of the initiative.

Most people understand yet fail to account for the fact that change engenders fear and uncertainty. That fear and anxiety present a whole host of counter-productive behaviors: needless perfectionism, nasty/unproductive inter-employee conflict, a tendency to avoid difficult but necessary conversations, etc. At the very least, fear blocks our creativity and prevents us from performing to our full potential. That unacknowledged fear, more often than not, scuttles an outside-in transformation. People feel uncomfortable and anxious in a new system, and either don’t adapt to it or allow their old anxieties to undermine their behavior.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that we are currently mired in an age of fear, brought on by the accelerating pace of change of technology, the degradation of the environment, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the crumbling of economic institutions. Many people live with an all-time high degree of baseline anxiety. The added uncertainty of a transformation effort can kick all of those fears into overdrive.

An Inside Out Approach to Transformation

unfear book

In our experience, the only way to create a sustainable improvement in performance is to employ an inside out approach to transformation. Our process, and the results—which we lay out in our book Unfear: Transform Your Organization to Create Breakthrough Performance and Employee Well-Being (McGraw Hill, Dec 2021)—does not begin with systems and processes. Instead, we start with individuals and their relationship to fear. We help them acknowledge and honor the fear that change and uncertainty create. 

Often, this alone is a breakthrough. In most companies, fear is a verboten topic. Acknowledging it allows people to learn to work with it. We don’t try to eliminate fear—that would be impossible and hardly productive. Instead, we seek to help people transform their relationship to fear. Instead of letting fear drive them to knee-jerk, dysfunctional reactions, they can recognize fear when it arises and discover a new, constructive and creative response to it.

After a critical mass of individuals embraces this new approach, we can move to the team level. There, we examine both the business and psychological processes that govern performance. Finally, after the individual and team, we work on the organizational level. Again, we don’t limit our work to operational transformation but examine everything about the organization’s culture. The vision, the mission, and the language that leaders use. Fear can be just as corrosive for a collective as it is for an individual. We must acknowledge that and shift how the entire organization engages with fear.

The Iceberg

The foundational idea behind the inside out transformation is that each of us is an iceberg. Our outward persona and behaviors form the tip of the iceberg. The bulk of who we are, the reasons that we behave the way we do, lurks beneath the waterline. The next level is our thoughts and feelings, and the level after that is our values and belief systems. Combined, these two levels comprise our mindsets, the lenses we use to see the world. Finally, the deepest level contains our needs and our fears. These are the roots of everything else, and we can only achieve change and growth when we understand ourselves on this level. Usually, our suboptimal behavior satisfies some need or manages some fear. To discover that fear or need, ask yourself these questions:

unfear iceberg

With this insight, we can ask, “How can I meet this need or manage this fear in a way that leads to growth, learning, and thriving rather than just surviving?” With this question, we embark on the unfear journey.

The Human Synergistics Toolkit in an Inside Out Transformation

If you use the Human Synergistics Diagnostic Toolkit you have already taken a step towards an unfear transformation without realizing it. In our decade-plus of using the Human Synergistics tools, we discovered that they provide tremendous insight into the deepest layer of the iceberg. In our book, Unfearwe present eight Fear Archetypes that map to the Behavior Styles and illuminate the core needs and fears of the Aggressive/Defensive and Passive/Defensive styles.1

Likewise, we also observe that the Constructive Styles can be mapped to four Unfear Archetypes. People who exhibit the unfear archetypes live from a place of agency and responsibility. They develop exciting, expansive, and innovative solutions. They hold an optimistic view of humanity and believe that their colleagues are well-intentioned, capable of evolving, and open to collaboration. (For more details about the archetypes, and unfear transformation in general, click here.) 2

We hope this has provided ideas that you can use in your practice. We are grateful to be a part of the Human Synergistics community. As fellow travelers working on a mission to constructively change the world, we welcome your questions, thoughts, and pushbacks! Please feel free to write to us at shobha@cocreationpartners.com or www.cocreationpartners.com.

Reference Note:

1, 2 The Constructive, Passive/Defensive, and Aggressive/Defensive cultural styles discussed here are adapted from R. A. Cooke and J. Clayton Lafferty, Organizational Culture Inventory®, Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics.
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