Survival Anxiety Versus Learning Anxiety of Culture Change

If the disconfirming data “get through” the learners’ denial and defensive­ness, they will recognize the need to change, the need to give up some old habits and ways of thinking, and the need to learn some new habits and ways of thinking. However, this produces learning anxiety. The interaction of these two anxieties creates the complex dynamics of change.

The easiest way to illustrate this dynamic is in terms of learning a new stroke in tennis or golf. The process starts with disconfirmation—you are not beating some of the people you are used to beating, or your aspirations for a better score or a better-looking game are not met, so you feel the need to improve your game. But, as you contemplate the actual process of unlearn­ing your old stroke and developing a new stroke, you realize that you may not be able to do it, or you may be temporarily incompetent during the learning process. These feelings are “learning anxiety.” Similar feelings arise in the cultural area when the new learning involves becoming computer competent; changing your supervisory style; transforming competitive rela­tionships into teamwork and collaboration; changing from a high-quality, high-cost strategy into becoming the low-cost producer; moving from engi­neering domination and product orientation to a marketing and customer orientation; learning to work in nonhierarchical diffuse networks; and so on.

It is important to understand that learning anxiety can be based on one or more valid reasons:

  • Fear of loss of power or position: The fear that with new learning, we will have less power or status than we had before.
  • Fear of temporary incompetence: During the learning process, we will be unable to feel competent because we have given up the old way and have not yet mastered the new way. The best examples come from the efforts to learn to use computers.
  • Fear of punishment for incompetence: If it takes a long time to learn the new way of thinking and doing things, we fear that we will be pun­ished for lack of productivity. In the computer arena, there are some striking cases in which employees never learned the new system suf­ficiently to take advantage of its potential because they felt they had to remain productive and thus spent insufficient time on the new learning.
  • Fear of loss of personal identity: We may not want to be the kind of people that the new way of working would require us to be. For exam­ple, in the early days of the break-up of the Bell System, many old-time employees left because they could not accept the identity of being a member of a hard-driving, cost-conscious organization that “would take phones away from consumers who could not afford them.” Some elec­trical workers in Alpha Power resigned or retired because they could not stand the self-image of being environmental stewards.
  • Fear of loss of group membership: The shared assumptions that make up a culture also identify who is in and who is out of the group. If by devel­oping new ways of thinking or new behavior, we will become a deviant in our group, we may be rejected or even ostracized. This fear is perhaps the most difficult to overcome because it requires the whole group to change its ways of thinking and its norms of inclusion and exclusion.

One or more of these forces lead to what we end up calling resistance to change. It is usually glibly attributed to “human nature,” but as I have tried to indicate, it is actually a rational response to many situations that require people to change. As long as learning anxiety remains high, an individual will be motivated to resist the validity of the disconfirming data or will invent various excuses why he or she cannot really engage in a transfor­mative learning process right now. These responses come in the following stages (Coghlan, 1996):

  1. Denial: Convincing ourselves that the disconfirming data are not valid, are temporary, don’ t really count, reflect someone just crying “wolf,” and so on.
  2. Scapegoating, passing the buck, dodging: Convincing ourselves that the cause is in some other department, that the data do not apply to us, and that others need to change first.
  3. Maneuvering, bargaining: Wanting special compensation for the effort to make the change; wanting to be convinced that it is in our own interest, and will be of long-range benefit.

Given all of these bases of resistance to change, how then does the change leader create the conditions for transformative change? Two prin­ciples come into play:

  • Principle 1: Survival anxiety or guilt must be greater than learning anxiety.
  • Principle 2: Learning anxiety must be reduced rather than increasing survival anxiety.

From the change leader’s point of view, it might seem obvious that the way to motivate learning is simply to increase the survival anxiety or guilt. The problem with that approach is that greater threat or guilt may simply increase defensiveness to avoid the threat or pain of the learn­ing process. And that logic leads to the key insight about transformative change embodied in Principle 2: The change leader must reduce learning anxiety by increasing the learner’s sense of psychological safety—the third component of unfreezing.

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition

4 thoughts on “Survival Anxiety Versus Learning Anxiety of Culture Change

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