Confronting Our Fear of Change

Confronting Our Fear of Change

For a few years, I had the privilege of being part of a semi-annual “summit” of chief communications and marketing officers (CCMOs), convened at various centers of health around the country.

The forum was a lightning round of sharing ideas and successes on a multitude of topics. The relatively small group visited most of the “big-name” healthcare systems and cities, and the generosity and mutual support was remarkable.

For the last one I attended, I was asked to present a campaign that I’d recently undertaken for my employer at the time. As the session went on, others presented, as usual. One CCMO had requested to present last. When he did, he launched into intense criticism of each presentation of work, and with each critique, he became increasingly agitated.

Now, I knew that what I—like others – had presented was merely one aspect of a comprehensive communications effort, and I thought about pointing this out. As his face grew redder, his speech faster and louder, I made a decision. Rather than defend my own work or that of anyone else, I would simply ask what I thought was the obvious question: “Why are you so angry?”

He said, “Because we are all at risk of becoming irrelevant.”

I’ve thought about that day often. The point he said he was trying to make was that we all needed to understand that the foundation of our way of work was changing. Consumers were changing, doctors were changing, everything was changing and, if we didn’t change as well, we were going to be out of a job.

But was he speaking out of anger – or was it fear? Perhaps it makes no difference, but as we attempt to address perpetual change in healthcare – or in any other aspect of our lives – it’s useful to remember that our human nature is to respond to change with anger, fear and any number of other emotional responses. While completely normal, these responses can keep us from accomplishing what we need to accomplish.

Change, by its very nature, means that the current state is no longer adequate. That’s frightening for some, liberating for others.

Regardless of emotions, my initial response to his concern about irrelevance was, “So?”  To approach change effectively, particularly in our business, we must begin with some reflection on the impetus for change and whether our motives are, for want of a better word, pure. Is the change that we are proposing for the greater good of the patients we are here to serve? Or is it self-serving to sustain a system, program or practice that doesn’t work anymore?

Finally, is it so awful if the current healthcare system is becoming irrelevant? In any industry, business models lose relevance every 15 years or so. But organizations that embrace this pattern can thrive.

As industry leaders, we must start with an honest conversation. With vulnerability and without fear or anger, we must confront the possibility of our own irrelevance. Then we can start the long, hard – but ultimately possible – work of preventing it.

By acknowledging that, while our practices may be irrelevant, our industry is not, we can, perhaps, let go of the fear that accompanies needed change.

About the Author /

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Award-winning healthcare communications professional Rebecca Climer began serving of counsel to our firm in 2017. Previously, Climer was chief communications and marketing officer for Saint Thomas Health, Ascension’s Tennessee Ministry.