By Jonathan Meagher-Zayas, nonprofit strategist and equity warrior

…for the times when fear is the reason for resistance, I want to help fellow changemakers understand how fear happens in the workplace, the reasoning behind those manifestations, and strategies to navigate and overcome it.

In one of my previous roles, I encountered a fundraising colleague who exhibited great resistance toward anything new. Whether it was adopting a new technology tool, engaging in strategic planning, or embracing social justice and equity initiatives, they simply refused to participate. 

This individual’s reluctance significantly impacted our small fundraising team’s success, leading to frustration and even toxic behaviors like bullying and gaslighting. Despite my persistent efforts, I couldn’t break through to them until a facilitated conversation with a third-party mediator shed light on the truth—they were afraid. 

After that conversation, I approached them differently. I waited to jump to conclusions. I asked open-ended questions to understand their perspective but also to help with their empathy skills. I directed them to resources to learn more and grow. Our relationship instantly transformed. 

This experience taught me that fear is a substantial barrier to progress in our organizations and often manifests in unsubtle ways. 

I want to acknowledge that fear is not always the reason for resistance. There is narcissism, greed, ignorance, laziness, selfishness, and other reasons people resist social equity. Also, having fear without repercussions, and even irrational fears validated, is a sign of privilege

But for the times when fear is the reason for resistance, I want to help fellow changemakers understand how fear happens in the workplace, the reasoning behind those manifestations, and strategies to navigate and overcome it.

The Four F’s and the Three D’s

Fear is often disguised as other emotions and actions, making recognizing it challenging. Rather than admitting their fear, individuals may exhibit anger or discontent. Some even resort to gaslighting and deflecting the problem onto others. 

Fear is typically associated with weakness or incompetence, making it even harder for people to acknowledge their own fears. When we are stressed and have deadlines and goals, blaming others for their behavior is often easier than having the patience to understand them and support their growth. To identify fear in colleagues, I utilize two frameworks:

The Four F’s

In the field of cognitive psychology, the four F’s refer to the four traditional reactions people have when confronted with fear:

  • Freeze: Some individuals, when confronted with fear, become immobilized, opting to do nothing.

    In a nonprofit context, this may manifest as statements like, “I’m not sure how to make our organization more diverse, so let’s wait until we have a clear plan” or “I lack the skills in that area, so we shouldn’t take any action until we hire a chief diversity officer.”
  • Flight: People often avoid their fears by running away or completely avoiding the situation.

    This may manifest in an individual leaving a room or meeting, withdrawing from a committee or project, or even quitting their job.
  • Fight: Fear can trigger anger and aggressive behavior in individuals. It can be challenging to discern whether someone is genuinely angry or simply afraid of venturing into unknown territory. Recognizing irritability, anger, or defensiveness can help uncover underlying fears of engaging in new or challenging work.

    This response can manifest in multiple ways in how we traditionally think of a difficult colleauge. They can exhibit aggression either passively or directly, sabotage the new efforts of their colleagues, start arguments, communicate rudely, make sarcastic comments, or even bully and harass. The fight response could even end up in formal complaints and attempted disciplinary actions.
  • Fawn: Fawning occurs when individuals excessively praise or glorify someone or something that threatens them, as a defense mechanism.

    While typically associated with victims of domestic abuse, this behavior can also happen in the nonprofit workplace. Colleagues may overly praise their colleagues of color or queer coworkers without actively participating in anti-racist work. They employ this tactic out of fear of being called out, using their excessive praise as a shield when their actions are challenged. In reality, they may be insecure or unwilling to examine their own beliefs critically.

The Three D’s

The other framework I like to understand communications and defensive responses is the Three D’s. This framework focuses on communication patterns and resistance to new ideas, particularly in equity and justice initiatives:

  • Denial (aka: “This is not a problem.”) Some individuals refuse to acknowledge the existence of problems, dismissing social justice issues as nonexistent within the organization. They may even blame those who raise concerns for creating the problem in the first place.
  • Disengagement (aka: “This is not my problem.”) Individuals who disengage may admit the existence of social justice issues but evade taking any responsibility. They may say, “That’s not my job,” or “Our DEI person should handle that.” By passing off the problem to others, they avoid engaging with the issue directly.
  • Derailment (aka: “What about other problems?”) Unfortunately, we have seen this too often. When a racial justice strategy is brought up at the organization, some colleagues mention, “Well, what about gender, sexual orientation, ability, geographic diversity, etc?” Instead of engaging with a problem, listening to the problems presented, and recognizing most issues are intersectional, they bring up other issues to overwhelm others and prevent progress from occurring.

Common reasons people are afraid

Understanding how fear manifests in our nonprofits is crucial. However, it is equally important to comprehend the underlying reasons behind it. As James Baldwin once said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” This quote reminds us that to bring about change, we must first understand the issues at hand. By understanding the root causes of fear, we can address them effectively.

Here are some common reasons why people are afraid of engaging in social equity work at their nonprofit:

  • They do not understand. The person needs clarification on what equity work is, why it is important, or why it benefits them. 
  • They feel threatened. They may think their job is at risk or worried they will be now labeled as a bad person if they do or don’t engage in social equity work. Additionally, the prospect of having to change familiar ways of thinking and operating can be intimidating.
  • They are resistant to change. Despite change being the only constant in the nonprofit sector, people resist new things. It can be challenging and uncomfortable to embrace new ideas and approaches.
  • They are afraid of making mistakes. There is often pressure to be perfect and avoid making mistakes, even though it is human nature to err. This fear of making errors stems from the pervasive characteristic of perfectionism in white supremacy culture. Nonprofit leaders, in particular, may struggle with this fear.
  • They are navigating trauma. Past traumatic experiences can significantly influence individuals’ willingness to engage in social justice initiatives. Negative past experiences, fear of causing harm, failure to learn from mistakes, and the need to heal from personal experiences can all contribute to this fear. It is essential to acknowledge and provide support for individuals on their healing and learning journeys, including understanding the historical context and the need for healing in the face of systemic oppression. 
  • Conflict avoidance: Most of us do not like conflict. I certainly do not, but we know it shows up. We know it will exist, and instead of navigating it together, we avoid it completely until something worse happens. 
  • Lack of trust: Trust is the foundation of any meaningful change. If individuals do not trust the person leading social justice efforts or the organization as a whole, they may hesitate to engage in systems-changing work.
  • Lastly, you need to be comfortable being your authentic self. Engaging in social justice work is not just about changing the way we view our systems, but also changing the way we view ourselves. How we think about our identities, histories, and privilege shapes how we approach our work. Many individuals still need to do the self-reflection to love themselves, regardless of their access to power, and understand how they can participate in this work while also loving themselves. Healing and self-discovery are a journey we must take to be effective anti-oppressive leaders.

I encourage anyone navigating an important issue to take the time to assess, research, and discover the real reasons behind the problems. Too often, we focus on treating the symptoms instead of healing the problem. If someone is afraid of engaging in work but has irritable behavior, how is punishing them going to help them improve?

I want to clarify that the above issues help explain the behavior but do not justify them. Everyone should be held accountable for their actions but in ways not focusing on punishment but on progress and growth. 

Ten strategies to reach someone who is afraid

With both of these in mind, I want to offer some recommendations on how people can approach someone who is afraid. Knowing that someone is fearful about a change and the reason why can help us choose the best option to approach it. 

Ten Strategies You Can Take: 

  • Assess and understand: As mentioned previously, understanding why someone is afraid is important to know how or who should be helping them. Asking open-ended questions like “Can you explain your point of view for me?”, ‘Why do you think this way?”, or “What is holding us back on this work right now?” could help build trust and a connection to understand what is happening with that person. It is also important to note that you might assess the situation and find out the person is not actually afraid. They may be biased, lazy, resistant, or ignorant, providing you with information to adopt a strategy to get through to them. 
  • Acknowledge: Understanding the problem is one thing, but acknowledging that it exists and there is work to be done is another. It may take us time to process that a difficult coworker is rejecting our work not because they don’t like us, but because they are afraid. We must also acknowledge that these issues are mostly caused by systemic oppression. Our system was designed to make people who want to change it feel defensive and self-doubt. People trying to make positive changes are not the problem. Racism and white supremacy are.
  • Practice Healing and Self-care: Healing is an act of resistance. We should ensure we are taking care of ourselves, especially when navigating tough issues. Before you jump in to tackle a leader who is afraid of change, you may need to take some time to heal from the experience and focus on reenergizing before addressing that person. 
  • Build Trust and Empathy: I always continue to say trust is the currency of change. Without trust, change can’t happen. It might be worth exploring how you can build trust with this person so they know they can be vulnerable around you. Think of our fundraising skills. Our supporters invest in our missions when they trust us more, and we must also translate those skills for advancing equity.
  • Normalize Fear: Everyone can have reservations about doing something new, and those feelings are valid. Help your colleague understand that this work takes effort and consistent change, and is sometimes difficult. Remind them it is ok to be afraid of what is next, but it is vital they continue their work moving forward. 
  • Ask for a Different Messenger: One of the most pivotal lessons for me in my community outreach career is that the messenger matters. Based on our experiences and biases, we receive information differently from different people. We have to admit that sometimes other people can get through to people better, and we should ask them to handle a difficult situation. Fleur Larsen just reminded us that we need more white role models, especially white men setting examples of anti-racist advocates. 
  • Advocate For Objective Support: Sometimes, to help the situation, you need someone objective with no stake in the outcome situation. For example, my coworker and I from the anecdote above did not finally understand each other until a third-party facilitator helped them open up about their fear. The internal team needed help to do that. If the situation persists, asking for a mediator, facilitator, coach, or disruptor to come in could help a person finally speak without fearing repercussions. 
  • Provide Educational Materials: Part of the fear is misunderstanding, and we must admit our educational systems do not educate us enough to navigate centuries of racial injustices and oppression. Therefore, sometimes we have to give people tools and resources to help them on their journey. Providing educational materials avoids overtaxing your energy (considering most nonprofits won’t pay for you to do it), and helps them learn in their own time and style. Sharing books, newsletters, blogs, social media accounts, online courses, and other resources puts the responsibility on that person to drive their journey in a way they feel safe. 
  • Share A Vision for the Change: Despite all our nonprofits having a vision for the future, many of us might need help to see a more justice-infused sector. You can help a colleague overcome that initial fear of change by understanding their motivation and communicating a future. If they are afraid to change their thinking, paint a picture of how easy it will get down the road. Or, if they are fearful of trying to diversify their donor base, communicate the opportunities and representation that could result in that effort. 
  • Walk Away: Lastly, sometimes, working with someone who is afraid is not worth your time and energy. Unfortunately, I wish we all had the time and resources to help everyone, but we can only do so much. Just as organizations evaluate if they can support a new initiative, you should personally think about that as well. It does not make you less competent because situations have many different contexts to consider. We should certainly push ourselves; however, I wish I had known earlier in my career that I cannot solve everything. Some issues are meant for others to address.

If we understand why that fear exists, we can understand how to help people along their journeys. Remember, fear does not excuse behavior, and people must be held accountable. But to hold people accountable in a community-centered way, we should focus on helping people change and bring them along our journey for social justice.

Jonathan Meagher-Zayas

Jonathan Meagher-Zayas

Jonathan Meagher-Zayas (he/him) is a Queer Latinx Millennial nonprofit strategist dedicated to addressing equity issues, building capacity, engaging the community, motivating new impact leaders, and getting stuff done. He wears many professional hats, including Fundraising and Communications Strategist, Adjunct Social Work Professor, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Consultant, Leadership Development Trainer, Social Sector Career Coach, and Social Justice Champion. He can be reached at or on LinkedIn