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Why does fear freeze people when we’re faced with change? Have you ever watched one of the nature documentaries where the gazelle stops dead in its tracks, nostrils flared, ears twitching, and frozen with fear like a cold marble statue?

You can see in the bushes the tiger hunched down in the prairie grass prepared to pounce. The gazelle is facing a major/terminal change. The response? The gazelle freezes with fear.

People do the same when faced with change. Our bodies and brains freeze, but why?

And how can you lead your school when change is a frightful situation?

Why Fear Freezes People

If you’re trying to lead change, or help facilitate adaptation to change, you’ll need to be aware of why fear freezes people.

Conditioned Stimulus

When we experience an event that is uncomfortable (think, previous changes), our brains are sensitive to anything that remotely resembles that previous event.

It’s a survival mechanism from millennia of evolution that allows a quickened response to avoid pain or loss.

Research
For the first time, neuroscientists at the University of Bristol have identified a brain pathway that may be the root of the universal response to freeze in place when we are afraid. Their revolutionary study—released on April 23, 2014—discovered a chain of neural connections stemming from the cerebellum. When activated by a real or imagined threatening stimuli, these neural connections can cause the body to automatically freeze. – Christopher Bergland

Fear and the Amygdala

In 1996, Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence) argued the amygdala can matter more than your IQ. For leadership strategy this is very true.

The amygdala (an almond shaped cluster of nuclei in the brain) can trigger a rush of emotion when stimulated with a fearful situation such as change.

The function of the amygdala is more important in leading change than logical arguments for change.
The function of the amygdala is more important in leading change than logical arguments for change.

Some even call it the Amygdala hijacking. Amygdala hijacking is when your primal instincts process information just a hair faster than your frontal lobe resulting in an irrational fight, flight, or freeze response to frightful or new situations.

For school leadership, this means a change initiative, while well-intended, can be completely hijacked by irrational and emotional responses from those you’re trying to lead.

How to Overcome Fear of Change

There are many things that become increasingly important when leading during times of chaos or during intense change. The first is the need for time management strategies that actually work for principals.

The second is to have a clear set of management systems that allow you to have your ducks in a row (like the ones we teach here).

How To Reduce the Freezing Effects of Fear

  1. Minimize The Change

    This is not the same as minimizing how people feel about a change happening in your school.

    This is segmenting the change into purposeful “chunks” so that the overall process is not as “big and scary.” There’s no reason to incite the amygdala and make the change harder.

  2. Exercise Cognitive Muscle

    Before communicating about change simply prompt your team, “If you’re like me taking a deep breath can help us think clearly about big ideas. Let’s take a deep breath, and then discuss this next topic.”

    Psychology Today Suggests: “Taking a few deep breaths in any fearful situation will stimulate the vagus nerve and the “rest-and-digest” aspects of the parasympathetic nervous system. This relaxation response unclamps the neurobiological grip of fear and allows us to “unfreeze” and move freely.”

  3. Focus on Reinforcement Rather Than Costs

    It’s well-known and accepted that positive reinforcement is a more powerful motivator than punishment. Use this to your advantage when leading change.

    Have a clear understanding of the positive outcomes of the change, and ensure there are more positives than costs.

    Then lead your staff in learning about the positive outcomes. This is important. You’re leading learning, not simply telling.

Your Turn

That’s a fairly short list of leadership strategies to help people overcome the fears associated with change.

What would you add to the list of leadership strategies?

What helps you escape fear-induced freezing?

Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Matt Foster


"I help people discover new perspectives." Matt is an educational creator, writer, business owner, certified teacher, certified principal, and sailor. He is CEO of TeamTom Education LLC and co-founder here at Principals' Seminar.

  • Great points at the perfect time! We have all been dealing with change since returning in September. For some of us, change comes more frequently than others depending when looking at fully remote vs. hybrid. Stress and anxiety, even frustration, can be seen across all levels of our district. Finding ways to “chunk” the change and the positive reinforcements continue to be two keys we try to focus on.

    • The stress levels are unreal this school year. I think you’re right about the chunking strategy…I’ve seen teacher PLCs become completely at-ease with a major change when the change was broken down into management “chunks”. And the early action steps were the smallest chunks of change, so they could achieve small, quick wins. That turned a scary change process into motivational moments.

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