Organisational Change Management Volume 2

12. Anxieties - Learning and Survival

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. Ingredient 1 (laying a foundation for new ways) involves learning, but there is an inherent paradox involved in learning. Anxiety can inhibit learning, but a certain level is necessary if learning is going to occur. Linked with this is the anxiety involved in motivating people to un-learn what they know and learn something new. In addition to the learning anxiety, there is survival anxiety. Learning anxiety comes from being afraid to try something new. This can be linked with the fear such as

- the new will be too difficult

- the participants could look stupid in the attempt

- having to change previously successful habits, etc

. Furthermore, learning something new can position people as outcasts. It can threaten our self-esteem and, in extreme cases, even our identity. These learning anxieties can be the basis for resistance to change. To overcome this, survival anxiety is needed, ie the realisation in order to survive, we are going to have to change. People experience so much hopelessness through survival anxiety that eventually they become open to the possibility of learning.

. In addition to purposeful and incidental learning concepts, learning happens when survival anxiety is greater than learning anxiety. There are 2 ways to accomplish this:

i) increase the survival anxiety by threatening people, such as with a loss of jobs and/or valued rewards

ii) decrease learning anxiety by creating a safer environment for unlearning and new learning, ie provide a psychological safety net. To create this psychological safety net is very difficult when pushing for greater workforce productivity, downsizing and/or undergoing a major structural change.

. As it is easier, most organisations prefer to increase survival anxiety.

. To the extent organisations stress the "stick over the carrot", such as managers demanding that staff learn - or else, they are building a strong resistance to learning. As a result, staff adopt a "wait-and-see" attitude to change projects. For managers to get staff to learn new things, they need to make their messages credible. This credibility helps create the kind of anxiety that leads to a safer learning environment. If the staff accept the need to learn, then the process can be greatly facilitated by good training, coaching, group support, feedback, positive incentives, etc

. Thus, real change does not begin until the organisation experiences some real threat of pain that in some way dashes its expectations or hopes. This threat of pain creates high levels of learning anxiety and survival anxiety, ultimately prompting the organisation to launch a serious change program. It is not unusual for senior management to feel most threatened by the new learning because it reveals their behaviour to be dysfunctional

An example of this is the space race between Russia and America in the 1960s. Competition between the Russians (communist system) and America (capitalistic system) was the most pronounced in the space race, ie especially to land humans on the moon and return them safely to Earth. Initially the Russians were leading in the space race, eg first satellite/sputnik into space, first man into space, first spacewalk, etc.. This created a sense of urgency for the Americans and resulted in them increasing their allocation of resources, effort, etc so that they were the first to put men on the moon in the late 1960s.

. Furthermore, senior management must become learners themselves. They need to acknowledge their own vulnerabilities and uncertainties, for transformational learning to take place. When senior management become genuine learners, they set a good example and help to create a psychologically safe environment for others. In fact, by acknowledging their own shortcomings, they empower themselves and others. (source: Edgar Schien, 2002)


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