Change, fear and Yahoo

2013

It's been impossible to ignore the firestorm that Yahoo's CEO, Marissa Mayer, kicked off last month when she put an end to staff working from home and insisted that they enjoy "the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices".

According to the communication sent to employees, "we need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together". Clearly Meyer identifies a renewed emphasis on face-to-face interactions, in-person meetings and give-and-take as critical in the search for meaning and direction and believes that impromptu get-togethers that lead to innovation are fundamental to Yahoo's new strategy.

That may or may not be true. From my perspective, whether or not this strategy will be successful is anybody's guess. The important question is whether Yahoo employees will commit and buy into it. Change management alone is not the issue here. Conscious change management is the issue.

Resistance is natural – plan for it

When human beings are exposed to changes in their workplace (or anywhere else), resistance is a common reaction. So even if change provides a solution, management needs to expect and plan for resistance. Whether people adapt is the real challenge of any change program.

So my question, from the outside looking in, is whether Yahoo is dealing openly and proactively with resistance and whether it realizes that the root cause of resistance is fear?

Smart vs. healthy organizations

Let's assume for the moment that Yahoo has its new strategic ducks in a row, that it has a clear vision, neatly articulated, power-pointed and bound. Let's assume that it is a "smart" organization.

But while it may be smart, is Yahoo "healthy"? Have they anticipated and planned for possible health issues resulting from the changes, things like falling morale, increased employee turnover, absenteeism and presenteeism (when your body shows up, but you don't), increased confusion, reduced commitment, engagement and buy-in and other behavioral and attitudinal issues?

Conscious change acknowledges that underneath resistance lies fear and that anger is a secondary emotion. Underneath anger also lies fear. And so conscious change places an equal emphasis on both the smart and healthy aspects, the technical and the people. Has Yahoo? We'll see.

Just as a runny nose, fever, temperature or aching signal an on-coming cold, unhealthy behaviors often signal ill health in the "body" of an organization. The "cold" in this case is resistance and the cells (individuals) are being infected by an organism called fear - an infection that seriously undermines performance, production, morale and, eventually, profits.

Treat the cause, not the symptoms

Change often fails because typical change tactics focus on the symptoms of resistance, not their root cause. To reduce and eliminate resistance, you need to reduce and eliminate fear – fear about how individuals will be affected, fear of the unknown and unfamiliar, real or potential fear of loss of control, recognition and security, fear of moving away from the status quo.

If change is to be healthy and effective, it requires a conscious and compassionate focus on people – a proactive effort that transcends logistics, politics, market share and all the other B-school and Wall Street Journal analytics that most change management efforts focus on, almost exclusively.

SOME QUESTIONS FOR SELF-REFLECTION

  • How do you generally deal with change in your life? What would others say?
  • How do others experience your being resistant? What attitudes and behaviors characterize your resistance?
  • Do you generally "go along to get along" in life?
  • Are you a creature of habit or a risk-taker?
  • When you experience the tension of change, is it a healthy or an unhealthy tension? Do you know the difference?
  • Were you more or less open to change as a child? How about your parents?
  • What causes you to be fearful? Why?

Of the hundreds of comments I've read about Mayer's decision, the vast majority – the angry, the very angry, the resentful, the disrespectful, the victimized, the rumor-y, the gossipy, the belittling, the hateful, the selfish, the inane, the nostalgic – almost all are symptomatic of fear in some way, shape or form.

Putting into place short- and long-term efforts to support those affected is fundamental to the success of any change initiative. Only by dealing with the root cause of resistance can organizations make navigating the white water of change becomes a less harrowing experience, for both the pilots and the passengers. Only then can they be both smart and healthy.

So, there's change management and there's change management. One is smart and one is both smart and healthy. Both have consequences. As for where will the Yahoo journey lead? Stay tuned.

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About The Author

Peter Vajda
Peter Vajda

Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a seminar leader, workshop facilitator and speaker. He is the founding partner of True North Partnering, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching, counselling and facilitating.