Gini Dietrich

Terror Management Theory

By: Gini Dietrich | November 29, 2010 | 
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I’d be lying if I said Arment Dietrich hasn’t had a lot of change since October of 2008. It started with the bank cutting off our access to capital, then we got letters during the holidays from clients expressing their wish to discontinue our services because of the economy, then we did (what we thought) a really deep lay-off, then we had to do another round of lay-offs, then we fired some clients, then we started to get comfortable with the idea that flat is the new up, and that’s when I decided to put Project Jack Bauer into play.

But change. Change is good, right?

Not according to a field of research known as “terror management theory.” It has shed light on the connection between people’s reactions to change and their awareness of death. Seems odd, but I’ve seen it happen within my own organization. People compare the change that is happening at work to what might happen when they die. As in real death.

According to Harvard Business Review, the idea is that people go to great lengths to repress awareness of mortality.

Studies show that we create three existential buffers to protect us from this knowledge: Consistency allows us to see the world as orderly, predictable, familiar, and safe. Standards of justice allow us to establish and enforce a code of what’s good and fair. Culture imbues us with the sense that we have contributed to, and are participating in, a larger and enduring system of beliefs.

Take Arment Dietrich as an example: When clients began to leave or cut their budgets in half, we had to lay people off in order to keep the lights on. But, for the people who remained, not only was their consistency gone, they also had survivor’s guilt. When we began to slowly change the compensation packages for everyone (first by asking employees to pay for half of their insurance costs and then by tracking their salaries to whether or not they meet their goals), their standards of justice exited the building. Then we realized the culture was gone and we began to rebuild it, but we did so with people sitting in home offices across the country instead of in our home office in Chicago. Building culture with people not in the same place is near to impossible. The culture feels like it’s beginning to regain some consistency to me, but that’s because I’m in the home office. I’d be willing to bet my team outside of the office feels like it needs A LOT more work.

When you put all three of those into play, it makes sense I have unintentionally signaled to employees that the end is near and the Grim Reaper is about to knock on the door.

There is a lot a leader can do in communicating the changes (and communicating and communicating and communicating) so people don’t react negatively. One of the things I did at the end of July is institute a staff meeting agenda outline that makes it impossible to avoid the conversations around change and around not only personal career goals, but business goals too. To say I’m perfect at it is a stretch, but it does provide an outlet for all of us to discuss what’s going on and what it means for each employee. I also make changes when I find something isn’t working, but I rely on my team to raise their hands and say, “Yo moron! This isn’t working!”

It’s not an easy thing – managing terror management theory – but I work really hard at it every day. Some days I’m better at it than others.

How do you manage change? How does the company you work for manage change? Does this theory make sense to you?

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

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