How to Grow the Driving Force & Reduce the Restraining One

Message from organization: “You have to change.”

  • Reaction 1: “What if I fail? Will I be exposed?”
  • Reaction 2: “What if I don’t change? Will I be left behind?”

According to former MIT Professor Edgar Schein, the brain reacts to such messages in two ways. The first reaction is called “learning anxiety”, the second “survival anxiety”.

Because we are human, we have all experienced these anxieties in different situations and in different forms.

From Making Sense of Change Management, here are four voices you might have heard at one time along your journey:

  • “I lack the competence to deal with the new situation.” – Fear of temporary incompetence.
  • “I’ll be punished when my incompetence is discovered.” – Fear of punishment for incompetence.
  • “My skills are no longer required.” – Fear of loss of personal identity.
  • “I’m no longer relevant to my group.” – Fear of loss of group membership.

For every one of us, an unexpected Change can feel like walking a tightrope. It doesn’t have to.

In this post, I offer 2 key principles, 2 questions and 2 practical actions you can take RIGHT NOW to grow the positive force for Change and reduce the negative one in your team, group or organization, .


For Transformative Change to take root, Schein emphasizes two principles:

  1. Survival anxiety must get greater than learning anxiety.
  2. Learning anxiety must be reduced (not survival anxiety increased).

Let’s look at a classic Change model that has been in place for over half a century.

As shown in Kurt Lewin’s Lewin's Force Field AnalysisForce Field Analysis, ‘Driving Forces’ are positive while ‘Restraining Forces’ are negative.

In other words, he saw survival anxiety as a positive, driving force, learning anxiety as a negative, restraining one.

Lewin believed that whenever the positive forces were stronger than the negative ones, the status quo could change (for ‘Desired State’).


The first question is for anyone wishing to drive Change in their team/group/organization:

1. What can I do to grow the driving force (+), and reduce the restraining one (-)?

Here are a few key elements Schein recommends:

  • Compelling vision of the future
  • Formal training
  • Practice fields & coaching
  • Feedback systems

The second question is to you:

2. What key elements, actions or interventions can support the learners in your team/group/organization?


  1. Think of a difficult Change you had to make in your organization and ask yourself these 3 questions:
  • What were my survival anxieties?
  • What were my learning anxieties?
  • What helped me to change?

2. Ask your people the same questions (don’t assume you know their anxieties!).

TOP TIP: DO take the time to explore their relevant questions, concerns, etc. DO NOT take their first answer/s and move on.*

*If you skip over this critical intervention, all your best intentions and well-thought out plans will fail to sustain the Change.


People are capable of Change. They should be treated like adults capable of having mature conversations.

As leader and manager, you often need to look below the surface of what is going on to uncover real, possibly hidden thoughts and feelings.

Keep in mind that every individual experiences change differently; everyone is on a different stage of The Change Curve:

Understanding The Curve will help you increase the positive energy for Change and decrease the resistance.

Once aware of where your people are, you can plan and implement effective interventions. On this point, people require effective systems and strategies to respond positively.

In the wise words of Esther Cameron and Mike Green:

“Healthy levels of open communication, and a positive regard for individuals and their potential contribution to the organization’s goals, contribute to creating an environment where individuals can grow and develop.”

This environment will foster healthy relationships for a healthy organization that is capable of Transformative Change.


If you thought of an additional idea to “Grow the Driving Force & Reduce the Restraining One”, I’d love it if you shared it in a comment below with me and everyone else.



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