Managing Anxiety is Key to Managing Change

Whew, it was a long and fun weekend in which I got to see two friends get married, and now I, like nerdy journalism academics everywhere, am scrambling to get it together for the April 1 deadline for submitting papers to the Association of Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference.  This yearly ritual that makes the whole nice-sounding idea of having a “spring break” a complete unreality for journalism geeks, unless you count sitting in a library trying to rephrase awkward research questions some kind of fun time.

Thought I would post a little more of the notes I prepared summarizing research relevant to changing newsrooms for the meeting of editors, publishers, and academics in DC I attended a couple of weeks ago:

  • Successful change is, fundamentally, a balancing act.  It occurs when what is known as “survival anxiety” becomes sufficiently strong to push people out of their comfort zones and get motivated for change.  However, “learning anxiety,” which is associated with the need to acquire new skills that might destabilize old competencies and provoke fear of failure, must also be reduced just enough to prevent defensive routines from being triggered (Schein, 2004). Defensive routines are common to all individuals and can inhibit even the most well-intentioned change effort (Kets de Vries, 2001)
  • “Bounded instability” is a term that refers to organizations that have just enough stability so that people don’t have to waste time and energy constantly reinventing the wheel, and to prevent the triggering of defensive mechanisms…but also just enough instability so that people are prompted to change, to be creative, and to search for new and innovative solutions even though this may be painful for them.  Leaders must serve as a container of anxiety for staffers while also pushing individuals past their comfort levels to foster creativity (Stacey, 1996).
  • A common thread in the literature is that investing in training and professional development is important (Killebrew, 2003; Singer, 2004; Sylvie and Witherspoon, 2002). Training can help reduce learning anxiety by giving people a sense of competence they may have felt they lost with change.  Training can also help reduce defensive mechanisms.
  • Research by my colleague Jonathan Groves and I has found that survival anxiety in newsrooms has indeed reached a critical point in which the motivation for change is there. With surprisingly few exceptions, folks interviewed from newsrooms from different media told us that they were willing and ready to embrace unfamiliar new skills and ways of working on the Web.  However, little so far appears to have been done to mitigate learning anxiety in most newsrooms as training budgets have been slashed; many were impatient with leaders they felt did not provide sufficient direction or help them prioritize new tasks and navigate the unfamiliar terrain.

For more complete references, holler and I’ll send ’em your way.



Filed under Research on Newsroom Change

6 responses to “Managing Anxiety is Key to Managing Change

  1. There are so many positive reactions I have to this post. Terrific stuff. Thank you.

    I’ll limit my comment on survival anxiety (great phrase, in my humble opinion). Your research matches my experience. Although the anxiety is real, many, if not most, employees are more than willing to embrace new skills if they are given a chance. Too often they are left in the dark – and the dark is the breeding ground of fear. Couple with that, they are given no chance to learn how to tackle new skills until months into the change. By this point anxiety has gotten so out of control, that learning has a hard time taking root.

    Rick Maurer

  2. Pingback: Change Management News » Blog Archive » Change Management and Anxiety

  3. Jack Moes

    As one of the senior leaders in an educational institution undergoing significant change, some of the research you cite above is very intriguing, and I would very much appreciate the more complete references. Thanks!

  4. changingnewsroom

    Glad to see it’s of interest. My first reaction in learning about this research was also that it truly reflected all of my professional, and personal experience.

    Here’s more complete references. A few of these are geared toward newsrooms, but I’d highly recommend Schein, Kets de Vries, or Stacey for more general applications.

    Schein, E.H. (2004) Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

    Kets de Vries, M. (2001) The Leadership Mystique. London: Prentice Hall Financial Times.

    Killebrew, K. C. (2003). Culture, Creativity and Convergence: Managing Journalists in a Changing Information Workplace. JMM: The International Journal on Media Management, 5(1), 39-46.

    Singer, J. B. (2004). Strange bedfellows? The diffusion of convergence in four news organizations. Journalism Studies 5(1) 3-18.

    Sylvie, G. & Witherspoon, P.D. (2002). Time, Change and the American Newspaper. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

    Stacey, Ralph (1996). Complexity and Creativity in Organizations. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

  5. Pingback: Training to Mitigate Learning Anxiety, and Other Positive Signs at the LAT « The Changing Newsroom

  6. Pingback: Change Management and Anxiety |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s