Whenever you propose a new project or plan, you need to win the support of others. But moving your agenda forward will inevitably create anxiety on the part of those whose support you need. Remember, you’re asking them to change and to take risks. You must recognize that, by joining your coalition, they may be entering a place where they feel unsafe or uncomfortable.
That’s why it’s your job to anticipate how people will react to your new ideas, and to be prepared to deal with fears they will have. But if you do your homework, you won’t be caught off guard.
Here are three common fears that often arise in the face of new ideas, along with tips for responding to each.
Fear 1: Failure
When you propose a new idea, you are not only asking for acceptance, but you are hoping for support. You are essentially asking individuals to invest time, effort and/or money in a project that has an uncertain outcome. Given that most of us are risk-averse, the fear of failure is a huge source of anxiety and resistance.
Therefore, it’s your challenge to get buy-in from others by demonstrating that your project is in the realm of reasonable possibility.
You can help others face the fear of failure by couching your intent in their reality. That is, you have to view your agenda from their perspective, and illustrate how it relates to their goals and aspirations. Beyond that, you have to be concrete. Ideas can be rejected because they are too sweeping. Rein in the scope of your idea and focus on exact costs and timelines. Don’t allow the drama and power of your idea to make you promise more than you can deliver.
Fear 2: The new
Another potent fear is the fear of the new. Fear of the new has a different dimension than the fear of failure. Humans necessarily routinize behaviors, processes and methodologies, and nowhere is this more evident than in organizations.
Habit is a powerful motivator and there is comfort in doing things the same way. With habit, people know what to expect and anything new adds a layer of confusion. In organizations, patterned behavior becomes institutionalized and repeated, and when it is challenged, there is resistance: “That’s not how we do things here.” This fear is far subtler than the fear of failure and the agenda mover must deal with it directly.
When you are trying to get individuals to support your agenda, you need to delineate the very specific steps and the resources you will make available to support them during the transition. Hollow reassurances of, “It’s going to be okay,” will not get them to support your agenda. You have to let them know on a concrete level that you will be there for them. Agenda movers need to make the unfamiliar feel somewhat comfortable if they want their new idea to become a reality.
Fear 3: Turf encroachment
Even if there is no hesitation due to the fear of failure or fear of the new, the agenda mover can stumble into the fear of turf encroachment. Individuals or groups may be afraid they will lose their identity, or the power and ability to control their own destiny.
A bit of paranoia may be justified. The introduction of new ideas can create a shift in priorities and resources that will make some feel alienated, undervalued or nervous. Broad change initiatives make it difficult for people to protect old turf and old ways of doing things. New ideas may imply an infringement on the status and power held before.
An agenda mover must take these concerns seriously and think of ways to preserve the status and resources of key stakeholders while implementing the new agenda. While it may be necessary to break down turf to move an agenda forward, it is also important to find a way to recognize and value every party involved without giving them the sense that something is being taken away from them. For example, you can accentuate the social prestige and recognition they will likely receive by joining your effort.
You may have a great idea and others may actually want to join you, but if you want their buy-in you must give them a sense that they will both benefit and be safe. This means focusing on the fears of those whose support you need. Simply put, you must always think of your audience and their world.
Samuel B. Bacharach is the author of The Agenda Mover: When Your Good Idea Is Not Enough (Cornell University Press, 2016). He is also co-founder of the Bacharach Leadership Group, which focuses on training leaders in the skills of the Agenda Mover, and is the McKelvey-Grant Professor at Cornell University.