“People don’t fear change, they fear loss.”
I heard this quote at the recent Future Connect Forum for Real Estate Agents in San Francisco. At the time, I didn’t think sitting in a room with 3,000 real estate agents and no windows for four days was going to be a great time.
But the impact of that quote alone was worth the price of admission and an overseas airfare. (It was a privilege to see an industry other than media discuss, debate, and engage around disruptive technological innovations that have changed the way they do business. Newspapers could learn something.)
As we work through major change projects back at News Ltd., thinking about this quote has helped me keep all the pushback and drama in perspective. It has helped me to hear — in what seems to be the never-ending process of communication — what is truly motivating people to resist: their fear. And it’s not their fear of change, but that they will lose something they truly love and value about their jobs or about their personal sense of security.
The economists have a rule for this. It’s called “loss aversion” (Tversky and Kahneman) and it argues there is a stronger human tendency to avoid loss than acquire gain. Maybe this is why we keep hearing that restructuring our industry is all about job losses, the destruction of the Fourth Estate and democracy, the death of quality reporting, etc. In other words, that restructuring is negative.
These are statements borne from a deep state of fear. And fair enough, it’s scary stuff. But our response as an industry to these comments has been simply to urge people onward to change, on the basis that we don’t have any other option, on the basis that if we don’t run fast enough, we will be overtaken and perish.
Management academics also have a phrase for this: “deficit approach.” As deficiencies and problems are identified, pain is necessary to break out of comfort zones and close the gaps. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, etc. But unlike the economists, management academics believe they have a way of dealing with it.
Gretchen Spreitzer, in her snappily titled work, “Leadership development lessons from positive organisational case studies,” argues that the power of “positive jolts” to stimulate learning and new behaviour is more powerful and lasting than fear.
“Although people can grow in significant ways in the face of hardship, they often respond to threats with paralysis or rigidity,” Spreitzer writes. “In the face of adversity, threat rigidity research finds that individuals close down and regress to past learned behaviours, rather than seeking out learning and growth.”
Address the fear, however, and the conversation about the change starts to change dramatically, she argues. The way to address this is to focus not on the weaknesses, but our strengths and to build the resources of our organisations and teams around:
- Shared knowledge — giving people an understanding of the big picture.
- Positive meaning — creating a sense of purpose in the work.
- Positive emotions — focusing and “catching out” the times when positive things occur and recognising and spreading the news.
- Creating positive connections — between themselves and staff and among staff to engender trust, respect, and gratitude.
In the ongoing step change of our industry, the time has come to stop focusing on the loss. Now we need to focus on the exciting ways that journalism is growing and adapting to reach bigger audiences than ever before, and to engage our teams and our staff in the thrill and potential of that big picture.
It’s now time to demonstrate how the key things we value — such as quality journalism, great coverage, fighting for the underdog, and holding institutions to account — can and will be captured and upheld in our new business models.
The time of running away because we are frightened of loss is over. It’s time to run toward the prize.