Why are so many fears associated with digital transformation? After all, digital transformation offers many opportunities for businesses: Increased efficiency, new services, the interconnection of data – and above all opportunities for new business models. Thus, people in companies should also benefit from this.

But at the same time, digital transformation creates uncertainty:

  • Will my workplace be affected?
  • Will my skills and expertise still be needed in the future?
  • Will I be able to meet the demands of the digital world (digital skills & digital mindset)?

How can decision-makers in companies react to these fears and anxieties?

The disruptive character of digital transformation

Digital transformation does not just mean the digitalization of existing processes. Rather, it means a far-reaching transformation that creates new business models, new strategies, new processes – and often requires a new self-image on the part of employees. The digital transformation is based on strategic considerations and is characterized by disruptive changes(German text).

Fear as a natural reaction to uncertainty

Many organizational change models use change curves. And almost all models describe a phase of disorder in which confusion, insecurity and fear emerge – the valley of tears. Fear is therefore a normal companion in change processes.

In German, the word »Angst« (fear) has its roots in the term »Enge« (tightness) and thus well describes the physiological processes that take place in people who are rigid with fear: The field of vision narrows (»tunnel vision«), attention is directed only to the perceived threat, the environment is largely hidden. The blood vessels in the human body contract. A mild heart attack is called »angina pectoris« – the tightness in the chest.

At the organizational level, similar phenomena can be observed: Confronted with an acute threat the human being falls back on quite archaic behavior patterns: fight, flight, freeze. The spectrum of action is narrowed down to these options. Under the influence of a strong threat, the organization often becomes rigid, loses its overview or is merely in »firefighter« mode: all attention is drawn to extinguishing the next fire – but strategic considerations fly overboard. As reasonable as this may be in the short term, this behavior is not sustainable as a permanent condition.

But how can it be that a change – often rationally well-founded – triggers this kind of overreaction? The answer to this lies deeply anchored in the human psyche.

Why are employees afraid of change?  

People have a neurobiologically anchored basic need for security, as we presented in our article series on »Leadership of the Future«.

Belonging as a powerful influencing factor

One of the strongest neurobiological factors is the conscious or unconscious fear of being excluded from the community. Exclusion from the community is one of man’s primal fears. Why is that so? – The ethnological perspective helps to understand this aspect (excerpt from our self-leadership book “Auf dem Pfad des Business-Häuptlings” by Springer Gabler, p. 157):

In many traditional nomadic societies, exclusion from the community was equivalent to a death sentence. Outside of the shelter created by the community, survival in a potentially hostile environment was dangerous. Wild animals, criminal or hostile people, or the harsh weather made life outside the community difficult. It was generally not possible for an outcast to move to another community in these societies. Outside of defined contact points (e.g. through marriage or trade relations) the stranger was usually not a welcome guest in other communities.

The need for belonging is deeply rooted in humankind, even though in modern civilization it does not mean physical death to lose the connection to one’s own »tribe«. But although the risks today are more subtle, they are just as threatening for the individual as a social being. Without an intensive connection to the company, career paths are often rocky, the flow of information is dried up and appreciation by colleagues and superiors is lacking. Returning expatriates often report that the expected and often promised career steps have moved into the distant future and that they feel like a foreign body in their home company.

Corporate anxiety

And these primal fears are awakened when change takes place within the company:

  • What will become of me? Will my skills and qualities still be in demand in the future?
  • Will my network of contacts continue to be valuable?
  • Will I have a place in the new constellation?
  • Will I continue to be part of the performance community within the company?
  • Or will I be pushed out? Will I lose my hard-earned status or even my job?

The voices in the head always react to the perceived reality (not the objective world) – and often the gut feeling is more important than the rational arguments of the head. This is all too human and should be taken into account in change situations.

What does this fear block out in the company and what effects does it have?

Creativity, innovation and learning need full mental capacity. Beyond a certain level, stress reliably prevents us from being in full possession of our mental potential. Neuroscience clearly shows: stress prevents creativity, prevents new ideas, prevents participation, and prevents playful experimentation. Fear prevents fun at work.

Fear can activate immediate action (e.g. running away), but is not a permanent motivator. Anxiety in the company leads to reduced motivation and commitment. Conversely, fun and humor can help to deal with stress and reduce fear (e.g. of the uncertain future). Neuroleadership takes into account the basic neurobiological needs of employees.

How can we counteract fear?

Connectedness and humor help to ease anxiety within the company.

Connectedness as the social kit

Networking, community and open exchange have a positive and anxiety-relieving effect. In the best case scenario, a threat from outside can even lead to the community standing closer together to face the challenge united. Nothing strengthens cohesion and the feeling of solidarity more than an external threat. And nothing weakens a community as much as internal disputes. Whether a community falls apart or moves closer together in the face of a challenge depends on how cooperation is shaped in »good times«.

A versatile culture is always a culture of exchange. The desire to exchange knowledge, the desire to learn and the desire to pass on one’s own experiences. Managers can set a good example with regards to these aspects.

Humor as crisis competence and valve for tensions

„Laughter is the best medicine,” the common saying goes. Humor often functions as a coping strategy after unpleasant events and as a lightning conductor for emotional tension, especially on the relationship level. But the line between self-irony and bitter sarcasm or gallows humor is narrow. The art of ridiculing oneself is an extremely valuable resource, for oneself and for others.

With police and military special units humor is a competence in high demand, as we know from our own experience. There, very close attention is paid to whether the candidates can deal with their own mistakes in a »sportive« way during the selection process. Anyone who beats himself up or pulls down the team’s mood has no chance in the selection process. Team players who can regulate their own mood even under extreme conditions are in demand, especially under the life-threatening conditions of the assignment. And one of the possible means of doing this is humor or the playful element. Fear and tension in the field are normal. And mistakes happen again and again despite the best preparation. Those who do not have a high frustration tolerance endanger the entire team and the mission. Humor helps to reduce accumulated tensions.

What can I as decision-maker do against the anxiety in the company?

On the individual level, there are many possibilities to face your own anxieties and to transform them into positive energy. In our book (see above) we give some suggestions in the chapter “The hero who faces his fears and thus shows true greatness”. It is often helpful to consciously interrupt one’s own patterns of action in order to become more adaptable.

And on the organizational level, too, there is much that can be done to transform fear into a positive force within the company. Some experts advocate adopting the attitude of a »Chief Experimental Officer« (article in German) who understands digital transformation not as a deterministic »change« but as a profound process of transformation. This can also be supported by the installation of »transformation offices« (same link as above). These ensure transparency in the transformation process: for management, but also for employees, customers and other stakeholders. The tasks of the transformation office:

  • Define boundaries within those involved can move.
  • Being the project and communication office.
  • Designer and driving force in the transformation process.

As a manager and decision-maker in a company, you can reflect on the following questions:

  • What strengthens the loyalty of the people in your company? What do you do in »good times« to strengthen the sense of belonging? Which rituals enliven the sense of togetherness in the team?
  • How do you deal with stress – e.g. anxiety – in your company? Is the topic discussed openly – or is it more of a taboo?
  • How would an external observer describe the humor in the corridors and workplaces? Is there a lot of laughter and fun at work?

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