5 ways fear can derail your digital transformation strategy

The biggest obstacle to successful digital transformation isn’t about technology – it’s helping users overcome their fear of change. Consider these expert tips
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What could go wrong with digital transformation?

You might think the main problems would spring from something technical such as a bug, a virus, or maybe incompatibility. Seldom do we think about the people who are expected to use these tools – but they may be the most dangerous part of your new digital infrastructure. That’s because, with humans, fear is in control.

5 common digital transformation fears and how to overcome them

Here are five ways that fear could collapse your digital transformation, and what you can do about it:

1. Fear of change

Change represents the unknown and our instincts don’t like the unknown: It may lead to danger. This is a fundamental instinct that helps keep all living creatures alive.

When we confront new work technologies such as a hybrid workplace, virtual meeting rooms, or new software, we tend to resist or avoid them simply because they’re new and we’re not used to them. This creates division. A company looking to offer a hybrid workplace might encounter resistance from employees, managers, and even customers who refuse to recognize this arrangement. What appears to be a simple reluctance to change is actually a deep-seated fear of changing a comfortable status quo.

What you can do about this: Offer facts to neutralize fear. People often use their own frame of reference if they are not given something tangible to hold on to. If the change involves new technology, demonstrate the technology. Let them see how it works. If the change is organizational, such as a hybrid workspace, present the facts about how it will work, what will change, and what will stay the same.

Listen to and respond to their questions and objections. Humans are dominated by emotion, and logic is always playing catch-up. So be prepared to play catch-up by delivering facts, descriptions, demonstrations, and answers to drive away the fog of fear, replacing it with a clear positive vision of the future state, all the tangible features of the change, and the steps you will take as a team to get there.

[ Also read Q&A: 3 digital transformation questions and answers about boosting team productivity. ]

2. Fear of looking stupid

Learning a new skill while other people are watching activates our fear of looking stupid. We know that learning is about making mistakes until we get it right, but when others are watching, the desire to learn evaporates out of fear of being judged. It happens in schools, and it happens at work. New software or digital transformation techniques require training and experience, but most companies don’t allow people to learn gradually and on their own terms. As a result, people tend to avoid the new solution and keep doing things the old way.

View learning as an employee retention technique rather than a time-consuming formality.

What you can do about this: Give people a chance to truly learn. Rather than simply installing new software, provide hands-on learning opportunities in a safe “sandboxed” environment, where they can practice. Re-focus your culture on the art of learning by replacing seminars with shorter, more iterative learning opportunities, and allowing time for people to practice safely. Give people the chance to learn through repetition, in a way that matches their own personal learning style. View learning as an employee retention technique rather than a time-consuming formality.

[ Learn how CIOs are speeding toward goals while preventing employee burnout in this report from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services: Maintaining Momentum on Digital Transformation. ]

3. Fear of the known

In addition to fear of the unknown, we also fear too much of the known. This is also called willful blindness.

Do you read all the instructions and warnings that come with each device you buy or app you download? Do you sometimes re-use passwords because changing them is a hassle? Do you ever use coffee shop WiFi or home WiFi without a VPN? These are all examples of ways in which we shrug and “risk it” because frankly, too much worry is overwhelming. (Unfortunately, these are also places where bad actors lie in wait.)

What you can do about this: Since willful blindness can harm a company, guide people out of “information overload” while delivering facts that clearly show why this change is important.

Break the overload down into its constituents. For example, to implement password management software, offer demonstrations and hands-on lessons on the software, but also deliver the facts behind the dangers of cybercrime by demonstrating lists of already breached passwords. This helps transform vague, overloaded ideas that generate willful blindness into actionable and manageable pieces of knowledge.

4. Fear of communicating

Many people today prefer email or text messages to talk. We may fear the intimacy of a face-to-face conversation or worry that it will take too long. Some people don’t want to appear on camera during video chats.

However, person-to-person communication improves clarity, understanding, and timely progress. When managers fear giving feedback to reports or employees are hesitant to explain their digital transformation fears, the gears of the organization grind to a halt.

[ Read more: How to manage disruption during digital transformation ]

What you can do about this: Build and nurture a culture that encourages live, face-to-face communication. Ask managers to lead by example, replacing email messages with informal video chats or phone calls. The payoff is greater engagement, teamwork, and more efficient meetings and communication.

If some employees balk at live conversation, either from lack of experience, personality differences, or cultural issues, speak the language of this new era – in which soft skills such as empathy and active listening help build and nurture teams whether on-premise, remote, or both. Train people on how to use them and how to feel good about using them.

5. Fear of losing their job

This is the biggest fear of all. Our jobs are not only our means of support but they are tied up in our identities. Losing a job can be devastating for many people, making them fearful of doing anything that might make them look bad. This can create resistance to change, even if they are aware deep down that the digital transformation will improve things overall.

What you can do about this: Recognize career mobility as a positive thing and work with it, not against it. In The Great Resignation, employees are leaving their jobs at unprecedented rates to pursue more fulfilling opportunities. Employers cannot expect to retain their best employees when other opportunities exist.

So, offer your employees the professional development and work-life integration they seek. Give them the chance to grow and develop their skills. In the words of Richard Branson, “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.” People who are fearful of losing their job are more likely to resist change. If they are fearless, they are more likely to stick with you and embrace that change.

The bottom line: Emotion rules

Humans are dominated by emotion, not logic. That means that emotions, not facts, drive our decisions. Business leaders who wish to introduce new techniques and technologies into the workplace must be mindful that change will be judged emotionally – especially through fear –and every person does this slightly differently.

To strengthen the human threads of your organization, first, understand that fear of change is like a debt: It must be paid upfront before you can make genuine progress.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Steve Prentice is a specialist in organizational psychology, focusing on the junction where people and technology interact. He helps people and organizations understand each other, the technologies they use, and the changes that these present.