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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55 Comments on "Terror Management Theory"

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HowieSPM
HowieSPM
5 years 8 months ago
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 dot.com bust came they had imploded. My company went from 100 to 200 employees in… Read more »
ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 8 months ago

@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.

HowieSPM
HowieSPM
5 years 8 months ago
@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… Read more »
ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 8 months ago

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

HowieSPM
HowieSPM
5 years 8 months ago

@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.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 8 months ago

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

C_Pappas
C_Pappas
5 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
wabbitoid
5 years 8 months ago

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.

aflandry
aflandry
5 years 8 months ago

@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… 🙂

HowieSPM
HowieSPM
5 years 8 months ago

@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.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 8 months ago

@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.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 8 months ago

@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).

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 8 months ago

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

JulieWalraven
5 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
wabbitoid
5 years 8 months ago

@HowieSPM
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.

wabbitoid
5 years 8 months ago
@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… Read more »
ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 8 months ago

@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.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 8 months ago

@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.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 8 months ago

@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.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 8 months ago
@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… Read more »
wabbitoid
5 years 8 months ago
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.… Read more »
ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 8 months ago

@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.

MimiMeredith
MimiMeredith
5 years 8 months ago
@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… Read more »
JonHearty
5 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 8 months ago

@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.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 8 months ago

@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.

DannyBrown
5 years 8 months ago

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? 😉

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[…] post on Spin Sucks called Terror Management Theory. If you haven’t read it, go read it now : http://spinsucks.com/entrepreneur/terror-management-theory/. The comments are very good too. Read the […]

abarcelos
5 years 8 months ago
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.… Read more »
ellenrossano
ellenrossano
5 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
jacobvar
jacobvar
5 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
jacobvar
jacobvar
5 years 8 months ago

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

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 8 months ago
@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… Read more »
ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 8 months ago

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

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 8 months ago

@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.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 8 months ago

@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!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 8 months ago

@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.

jacobvar
jacobvar
5 years 8 months ago

@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.

BlairMInton
BlairMInton
5 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 8 months ago

@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!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 8 months ago

@jacobvar Phew! 🙂

DannyBrown
5 years 8 months ago

@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 😉

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[…] 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 […]

jonbuscall
5 years 8 months ago
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.… Read more »
davevandewalle
davevandewalle
5 years 8 months ago

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.

davevandewalle
davevandewalle
5 years 8 months ago

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.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 8 months ago

@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.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 8 months ago

@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.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 8 months ago

@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.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 8 months ago

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

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