Gini Dietrich

Terror Management Theory

By: Gini Dietrich | November 29, 2010 | 

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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55 responses to “Terror Management Theory”

  1. HowieSPM says:

    I went through this. It makes some organizations stronger. It destroys some cultures. It has to do with leadership at the top. I could write a book on this and if you ever need advice feel free to ask. When I first went through this I worked for a company in California that was a parts distributor to high tech and heavy industry. The sales driver was the companies that make the machines that make computer chips. Their business is very see saw. When the bust came they had imploded. My company went from 100 to 200 employees in 5 years. New Building. Then kaboom sales droped 50%. Sad thing is I was flabbergasted no one saw this coming. It was handled well at first then they forgot what got them to where they were and lost a lot of great talent.

    On a bright note since I refuse to bring negativity to Spin Sucks reading your story and honesty is refreshing, inspiring, and empowering!

    Openess, transparency, honesty, will get the buy in. I think profit sharing works well as long as its real. You have to give a vision with the carrot to the group of what everyone reaps if successful because they will be comparing this to outside options. And if you are someone people believe in you will prevail. They want input and feeling they have a stake, but most will need strong leadership to rally around.

  2. ginidietrich says:

    @HowieSPM I agree that profit sharing works IF you have profits to share and IF you can provide something throughout the year. It’s too hard as a carrot at the end of every year. It’s not motivating. I’m certainly not perfect at it, but I find little things throughout the year provide more motivation and kudos during staff meetings, in front of everyone, is the most motivating. It’s been a rough couple of years. I thought we’d be out of it by now. We’re not. Even I have a hard time being motivated some days.

  3. HowieSPM says:

    @ginidietrich Yes. Profit sharing should be at least quarterly if not monthly. I also don’t view it as something that replaces pay. To me it’s an over and above pay out for the team. Obviously if there was lots of profits layoffs or change isn’t needed right? And money isn’t always the best motivator. Both monetary and acknowledgement awards work best regularly and don’t need to be of dramatic $$ value. It seems you read my team’s paper my junior year of college in my Organizational Behavior Management Class. We had to investigate if money is a motivator and put together a 20 page report. And it turned out year end bonuses were the worst performing incentive. That even a $25 gift certificate during the year reaped better rewards (performance, employee job satisifaction, moral etc) than a big pay out at the end of the year! Didn’t know you were stalking me that long 😉

  4. ginidietrich says:

    @HowieSPM Yeah…I’ve been stalking you that long. And I read Daniel Pink’s book, too.

  5. HowieSPM says:

    @ginidietrich Never heard of Daniel Pink I will now check out what his book is. I don’t read too many business books but always open for gems. Hey where is everyone else!!? I’m fixing this.

  6. ginidietrich says:

    @HowieSPM I think everyone is trying to get their heads around the fact that vacation is over.

  7. C_Pappas says:

    Not surprising to see that people react to change as a type of death. I mean, it is the death of the old ways of doing things – right? So, past patterns are making us react in this way whether we watched a friend or family member go through it or endured it ourselves.

    A close friend of mine right now is going through a ‘change’ at her workplace. Threats of bringing in ‘new blood’ and downsizing and not to mention, the daily meetings ending in pink slip distribution have her running scared. I hate to discount her experiences and say she shouldn’t worry but I lean more towards the idea that she is lucky to leave a company that manages change in that fashion.

    Change is hard, whether its in your professional or personal life. I have seen companies excel at change and turn a negative into a positive and getting everyone on board and excited about it. On the flip side, I have seen companies who keep quiet about change, not wanting to rock the boat and feed the rumor mill. These have just ended in reduced trust and resistance.

  8. wabbitoid says:

    This is fascinating because I have long speculated that my own ability to do whatever it takes to get through bad situations has a lot to do with my own complete lack of fear of death. It’s a long story as to how I got there, but suffice it to say that I did. It really does help. Things like money and fame and all this other nonsense have a much different perspective when you conquor the one fear that stops most people completely.

  9. aflandry says:

    @ginidietrich @HowieSPM You need to watch Gladiator and 300 back to back. Then get outside and shout “Spartaaaaaaaaaaaaaa”!

    I don’t remember where I read this but someone once said that real leadership is to make people face their death without fear.

    But it’s entirely possible that I’ve just made it it up… 🙂

  10. HowieSPM says:

    @wabbitoid As long as the people fear death, the executioners axe will sing. Lao Tzu – Tao Te Ching
    I think 99% of all the oppression in this world derives from preying on this fear of death.

  11. ginidietrich says:

    @C_Pappas I wish I could have every leader I work with read this comment. Wait! I CAN! It’s all about communication and, you’re right, not allowing the rumor mill to feed itself. I’m a commuication expert and sometimes even I get into the grain of doing my job and forget to tell people what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. I can’t imagine how hard it must be for those who aren’t comfortable with transparency and honesty.

  12. ginidietrich says:

    @HowieSPM @wabbitoid I also think there is a difference between fear of change you can’t control (working for someone) and fear of change you can control (entrepreneurship).

  13. ginidietrich says:

    @aflandry @HowieSPM Even if you just made it up, it’s really stinkin’ smart!

  14. Brilliant, Gini! You speak about the employer side of things in an eloquent and insightful way. Many job seekers are filled with anger – some it was handled so wrongly and others because as Christina mentioned, “Change is a type of death” Grieving through job loss, like death itself, divorce, or other losses takes time but when the employer is unable to see the emotional side for employees, the job loss hits even harder. This such a complex subject that could take two or three more posts to explain but the employer reaction to the economy has so much to do with the issue. I loved what you said here: “they also had survivor’s guilt.” so complex. Thank you!

  15. wabbitoid says:

    The ordinary man seeks honour, not dishonour,
    cherishing success and abominating failure,
    loving life, whilst fearing death.
    The sage does not recognise these things,
    so lives his life quite simply.

    Tao Te Ching 13 (Rosenthal)

    I agree that a kind of “background” cowardice that starts with a fear of death – but extends into a fear of dishonor or decline in status – is the root of nearly all opression. It’s also the root of nearly all unhappiness as far as I can tell, too.

  16. wabbitoid says:

    @ginidietrich @HowieSPM But let’s take a look athte things we can’t control – we can at least understand them. And if that doesn’t work intellectually we can always go with intuition. There are many ways our li’l species of standing-up chimp can understand our world because the “developed” world we live in is nearly entirely created by humans for humans.

    Many people who are working for someone else know perfectly well that their job won’t last forever because they read the dysfunction of the company. In those cases it’s not a surprise when it all goes down.

    What I am trying to grasp is how people can live their lives shunning an understanding of the things around them – especially those things that they deem they can never control. I don’t see how we can call ourselves a free people with this kind of attitude. And I agree with Howie (and Lao Tzu!) that this cowardice starts with a fear of the greatest unknown we cannot control.

  17. ginidietrich says:

    @wabbitoid @HowieSPM I agree with you, but as a business leader, I can’t force people to understand the things they can’t control. The only person I can control is me…and I do that by communicating and communicating and communicating again. Sometimes it’s really frustrating and I often wonder why it has to be this hard, but if I put myself in their shoes, I’d want to be overly commmunicated to, as well.

  18. ginidietrich says:

    @wabbitoid @HowieSPM I agree with you, but as a business leader, I can’t force people to understand the things they can’t control. The only person I can control is me…and I do that by communicating and communicating and communicating again. Sometimes it’s really frustrating and I often wonder why it has to be this hard, but if I put myself in their shoes, I’d want to be overly commmunicated to, as well.

  19. ginidietrich says:

    @wabbitoid @HowieSPM I agree with you, but as a business leader, I can’t force people to understand the things they can’t control. The only person I can control is me…and I do that by communicating and communicating and communicating again. Sometimes it’s really frustrating and I often wonder why it has to be this hard, but if I put myself in their shoes, I’d want to be overly commmunicated to, as well.

  20. ginidietrich says:

    @JulieWalraven I totally get where people are coming from. My husband is changing careers coupled with my having to make really awful decisions that no human being should ever have to make because of money. I know things happen for a reason and that, in order to stay in business, tough decisions have to be made, but those things don’t make it any eaiser for anyone. I think their is ownness on the employee (like your blog post today) and one on the employer. The really great employers won’t be seen until the economy turns around and they don’t lose their talent. The really great employees won’t be recognized until the economy turns around and they don’t leave their jobs.

  21. wabbitoid says:

    Gini, I see why you have to be a part of the chorus on this kind of thing and I appreciate it greatly. But I wish it was all much better understood by our culture in general, which is where wannabe philosophers like me could use gainful employment. Then again, the real problem is that very few people want to hear this stuff as it goes against most of what our bizzy bizzy world has accepted. There’s not much of an income to be made by pointing out how well our culture has been able to kid itself into submission.

    Between Chia and and Greece (and a few other places) so much of this was figured out 2,500 years ago. It’s not exactly new or kewl or fashionable – but it needs to constantly be translated into culturally relevant terms. I hope you can see why I’m skeptical of trends even as I have to understand them to be able to make adequate translations of ancient wisdom. In the end, hype (and spin!) is the real problem.

  22. ginidietrich says:

    @wabbitoid Trust me. If I could figure out a way to create a culture that is both work and fun, while not having any HR issues and people just doing their jobs, I would. But that’s not reality…and I really doubt it’s reality in any culture.

  23. MimiMeredith says:

    @ginidietrich @wabbitoid @HowieSPM Gini, this is one of my favorite topics. So many good thoughts have already been added. I just want to say that, while I think the CEO communicating and living the culture is imperative, I also think it helps to have help. Communication and culture experts who help a team learn how to sustain relationships in times of fear and scarcity, as well as in times of abundance, can reinforce a foundation in “times like these” that will sustain an even stronger company in the long run. I don’t think any CEO has the perspective or the balance to provide all of that to her team, regardless of how brilliant she is.

    I recently watched a favorite company emerge from Chapter 11 healthier than ever because, for the first time in 72 years, outsiders came in to tell them that the emperor was naked and change was inevitable. I’m sure some of the veterans of that company would have prefered death. But they had the wisdom to listen and to see themselves in a new light. In that case, a fresh perspective was mandated by the legal process of reorganization. Clever business leaders seek outside perspective as a natural aid to break out of insular practices and stagnant models that limit prosperity.

    There are really good people out there (and of course, I do believe I’m one of them!) who can help a team learn to process Information (because if you’re communicating, communicating, communicating–they have a lot to process) and gain new understanding and discernment. That platform may not lead them to Taoistic accpetance of the natural course in the face of death…or change, but it is a great base on which barriers to confidence, trust, teamwork and culture can be established and the force of fear minimized.

  24. JonHearty says:

    Thanks for this post ginidietrich I have never heard of this theory but I find it very interesting. Death is certainly the ultimate change in our lives that we are only sometimes reminded of; most of the time we choose – perhaps subconsciously – to be oblivious to the inevitability of our death.

    Times of drastic change have definitely illicited a fight-or-flight reaction in my experience, but it has almost always yielded a time of personal growth that was long overdue. Complacency is dangerous and when upcoming change begins to seem deathly scary, it is probably a sign that disruption is needed.

    I can only assume the changes you went through with Arment Dietrich produced better practices that may not have been discovered without an unexpected change. I’m sure it was tough to have to cut salaries and laid people off, but did you find that the outcome was beneficial? We’re you left with a leaner, higher quality company? I’d love to know!

  25. ginidietrich says:

    @JonHearty The outcome was definitely beneficial, Jon, but those changes are typically only apparent as benefits to me and the executive team. We run things a lot tighter. We aren’t over-spending. It’s made me a better leader and communicator. But all of that means nothing to my team if I don’t communicate effectively and consistently. I think that’s where leaders fall short – they know the change is good, yet just want people to accept the change without explanation.

  26. ginidietrich says:

    @MimiMeredith Great point, Mimi! And likely is the reason I still have some people I feel like aren’t on board with the change, no matter how much I communicate. They likely aren’t processing the change as quickly as I would like or hope. Definitely a new twist on something I need to be considering.

  27. DannyBrown says:

    Awesome post, Gini.

    I know what you mean about the culture thing, and it’s one of the key reasons we opened an office for Bonsai. Yes, we work hard at home and get the work done, but it’s never the same as being across the room and bouncing an idea off each other in the office.

    Plus we have our strategy meetings around Xbox 360 – what’s not to like? 😉

  28. […] post on Spin Sucks called Terror Management Theory. If you haven’t read it, go read it now : The comments are very good too. Read the […]

  29. abarcelos says:

    Great post Gini! Terror management theory is fascinating, and no matter how much you try to educate your employees, change is so damn hard. I think the trickiest part is trying to make employees understand that change from a business perspective is never personal. You’re working to improve the business, and in order to do that, change is necessary if not critical. Look at relationships when people grow apart, evolve, or have changes of heart. Business is no different. There are times when businesses evolve, and it no longer makes sense to have the same processes or people in place. At times it’s much more painful to stay the same rather than change. It’s pretty cut and dry in the business world – companies go out of business.

  30. ellenrossano says:

    This post really hit home Gini! I had a business that closed in 2009, partly because of things over which I had no control, like the economy, and partly because of some bad business decisions. We did a lot of things right, but I learned the hard way that employees will never see things from the owner’s point of view; it’s not their money, and they will never be as invested in the company’s success as the investor/owner.
    I admire your tenacity and your ability to keep things moving forward in such trying times. Here’s hoping that 2011 is prosperous for you and for your company!

  31. jacobvar says:

    Hi Gini,
    Great post. I am a bit taken aback at your honesty :). Back to your post…I have been at the receiving end of the illusion of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ …that you had to put your company through. Only in my case it was a series of layoffs (about 5 in about 8 years) , wage freeze etc. Terror management in that companies case involved telling us that things are ‘on track’ after each layoff :).I’m sure it must be challenging to operate the ‘company culture’ by remote control. Especially if any of the current employees are also survivors. For the past 3 years I have operated a business based on a model of local consultants (part-time) and offshore suppliers. So as such I am dealing with other entrepreneurs, and this makes it easy for us to work on the same wavelength since entrepreneurs think differently. So maybe your employees should be empowered as entrepreneurs…for you to be doing less ‘terror management’. On the flip side, it may not work since there may be a ‘company culture’ anymore.

  32. jacobvar says:

    the last line should read ‘On the flip side, it may not work since there may *NOT* be a ‘company culture’ anymore.’

  33. ginidietrich says:

    @jacobvar I hope taken aback in a good way! I also hope I didn’t give anyone the perception, by writing this, that I’m leading by terror management. I would be mortified if anyone thought that…but I’m pretty sure I lead by communicating and being fair (probably fair to a point). My point was not that people lead by trying to scare their employees, but that employees see change as it relates to death. Everyone says they like change, but as soon as change is implemented, they fight it. During my journey, I’m trying to figure out why the challenge is not in the change, but in helping people understand what good it means for them. That was the purpose of this post…not of saying that I lead by scaring my staff.

  34. ginidietrich says:

    @jacobvar That should say “fair to a fault”, not point.

  35. ginidietrich says:

    @ellenrossano It’s a hard lesson, isn’t it, when you realize no one cares about the business as much as you do? After I started Arment Dietrich, I wrote a note to Steve Rhea who owns the agency I worked before I went out on my own. I told him that I had no idea what it took to be a business leader and I respect him all the more now.

  36. ginidietrich says:

    @abarcelos It’s funny – my sister-in-law and I had this same conversation over the holiday. She asked me why managers can’t lead without personal attacks to which I replied that her boss shouldn’t be a manager. It is true that business is not personal, but it sure is hard to take emotion out of decisions…especially when having to let them go!

  37. ginidietrich says:

    @DannyBrown You and the Xbox crack me up! I’m flying up there for one of these strategy sessions! You are so right…it’s MUCH easier to create culture, get work done, and communicate when people are in the same office. I keep thinking the brick and mortar offices will eventually be gone, but then I realize how much we need human interaction.

  38. jacobvar says:

    @ginidietrich I did mean ‘taken’ aback in a good way :). I agree with what you say about change as it relates to death. I think that a change in the workplace often means change of routine and more importantly even ‘purpose’, for most employees. It does take a lot of ‘counseling’ to compensate. What you are doing is definitely not easy.

  39. BlairMInton says:

    I’ve never heard of this theory but certainly buy into it. Many companies that I worked for loved making employees feel uneasy with their jobs and that they could be replaced. Many coaches my kids had did the same thing on purpose by pitting kids against each other daily for starting positions. I wanted something totally different when I started my company and we have a totally different philosphy. I first set the bar of what I expect from each employee very high and they are quite aware of that bar from day one. But I also treat every employee with respect, kindness and we have made this company a family. As family, we meet on a regular basis and I’m totally open and transparent about what is good and what is bad with the climate that our business operates in. This has made the employees feel that this company is their company, that they have a say in what we do, that they are important to the decisions we make and our success and I share profits with all of them. They help make the tough decisions and enjoy the successes and they push each other to excel so I don’t have to. This culture has led our company to growth that I never dreamed would happen and success that I never expected…and I don’t have to push or prod. My employees are simply the best in the world and they are very proud of their family.

  40. ginidietrich says:

    @BlairMInton You also are a mission-driven business, which is few and far between. You live your talk and it’s apparent not only in your personal life, but also in the way you lead. It’s one of the reasons I love you dearly…and ask for your advice all the time!

  41. ginidietrich says:

    @jacobvar Phew! 🙂

  42. DannyBrown says:

    @ginidietrich Anytime, miss – if you do get this way in February, we’ll bash heads and brainpower. 🙂

    That was one of the things I did enjoy when I was contracting in-house at a larger Fortune 300 earlier this year. The human interaction made up for the red tape madness that was senior management 😉

  43. […] of years promise to have some tough times ahead for businesses, small and large. Yet with the reduced overheads and the more focused framework that smaller businesses have the advantage of, they can also be the years you really stand […]

  44. jonbuscall says:

    This post really resonates with me Gini. My own agency is very much a virtual agency in that I have people working for me in Tokyo, Barcelona and Stockholm. Skype, Basecamp and Backback really help but it can be hard to sustain a sense of group cohesion. Particularly when you hit a tough quarter.

    Q2 and Q3 felt awesome this year as things were really kicking off again after the recession but Q4 has been a struggle but I think its forced me as a leader (duh!) to take more responsibility in carrying things for the rest of the team. Personally it’s been tough on me (what weekends?) but I think by stepping up to the plate, encouraging and also digging to keep things going, I’ve developed immensely.

    Bottom line, I think as the leader of a team – especially one that has a large virtual office – you have to keep the energy and enthusiasm of the team up. Regular contact, and even just chewing the breeze over coffee – is essential so that when up time comes along, with more to do, you’ve got people committed to stick with you and really deliver on a project.

  45. davevandewalle says:

    Good stuff, Gini.

    I’ve watched this sorta thing time and again in my career – watching it with a couple client engagements, too; where you are powerless to get people to change at the top, even though you have “seen this movie before.”

    I’ve always thought the informal network – friends, confidants, not necessarily work types – has been the most helpful getting through this type of change management.

  46. davevandewalle says:

    Good stuff, Gini.

    I’ve watched this sorta thing time and again in my career – watching it with a couple client engagements, too; where you are powerless to get people to change at the top, even though you have “seen this movie before.”

    I’ve always thought the informal network – friends, confidants, not necessarily work types – has been the most helpful getting through this type of change management.

  47. ginidietrich says:

    @davevandewalle I’m adding you to my list of friends who have permission to smack me if you see that same movie with me but I refuse to change.

  48. ginidietrich says:

    @jonbuscall You’re so right, Jon. I feel like we’re living the same life! I know there are days where I think, “Man! It’d be nice if I weren’t the only one answering client emails this weekend.” But I’m like you – I lead by example and believe in rolling up my sleeves to get the work done.

  49. ginidietrich says:

    @jonbuscall You’re so right, Jon. I feel like we’re living the same life! I know there are days where I think, “Man! It’d be nice if I weren’t the only one answering client emails this weekend.” But I’m like you – I lead by example and believe in rolling up my sleeves to get the work done.

  50. ginidietrich says:

    @davevandewalle P.S. I’m waiting for your strep throat diet to kick in.

  51. Area224 says:

    @ginidietrich @davevandewalle I don’t condone any violence whatsoever. Also, strep throat diet takes a week, at least.

  52. barrykahan says:

    @ginidietrich @jonbuscall It is not easy to be the one having to be the one designing the play on the white board. Like a coach, you are the one your people look for for success. I enjoy reading books by John Wooden. I think an analogy to his coaching works here. You can have some great players, but like a car, you can have 4 great tires and a powerful engine, but you still need the one driver of the car to get anywhere.

  53. […] things get rocky Gini Dietrich looks at the terror management theory to find a path through turbulence. If you are an expat […]

  54. markjuliansmith says:

    Personal Reflection on Terror Theory- The Mortality Salience – Regards Self or Culture?

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