By: John Bonoff
If change wasn’t already a constant for the majority of organizations around the world, it certainly is now. Under new work-from-home policies and ever-shifting strategic priorities, businesses and their leaders are forced to adapt to not just a sea change in the market, but the ripple effect of changes on their employees. Change can be exhausting. Enduring multiple changes at once can eventually lead to heightened stress, decreased commitment, burn out, and even turnover, if the change is not managed well. With the average employee experiencing 12 changes in 2019, it’s clear that a lack of organizational change management is the reason most change initiatives fail.
What is Change Fatigue?
Change fatigue is a symptom of mismanaged change, and it can impact business and culture in a big way. Employees will begin to feel apathetic towards change, and only desire to do the minimum or go through the motions. The spirit of productivity, innovation, and creativity can become greatly diminished. In order to see each change initiative through to completion without losing employee involvement and productivity along the way, become familiar with change fatigue and the ways you can stay ahead of it. Listed here are a few simple strategies you can use to do just that.
Explain Change Thoroughly
For a new initiative to be successful, three things need to be explicitly clear at the outset: why the change is occurring, what success or completion of the initiative will look like, and how the company and its leadership will make those outcomes a reality. An even simpler alternative to this “why-what-how” approach is to clarify what led to this change (the past), and what will be different going forward (the future). No matter which style of change communications you choose to employ, make sure these core elements are intact. Communicating these concepts is only one part of executing change, but it will clear the path for all other steps to come.
Focus on Leaders
During times of organizational change, managers will need to become change advocates. Even if you have an internal change management task force or dedicated team, managers and internal leaders must be equipped with the capabilities needed to guide change, or those around them will be more likely to experience change fatigue. In fact, bringing in an outside team to manage change can sometimes expedite fatigue and make employees feel as if change is being done to them and not with them. Whether it’s conducting an organizational change survey or one-on-ones, make sure managers have the training and skills they need to field employee questions and frustrations that come with adapting to change.
Give Up Some Control
On the subject of change recipients vs change advocates, understand that there is such a thing as over-managing change. When a new way of work-life is announced, employees need time and space to take the change into their hands and figure out how it will apply to them personally. At the ground level, employees will ultimately decide how organizational change manifests in their workflow, and employers should support them as employees determine how that happens. Additionally, duties around the planning and execution of change should also be distributed among key employees. This will reduce change fatigue by creating a more informed strategy prior to the rollout, and it will also help overcome resistance to change by generating change advocates at various levels of the organization. Change managed loosely but watched closely is most likely to be successful.
Keep Communication Open
Change communications should include two key elements: regular reminders of intended outcomes and core messaging, and an open ear for feedback. “Be prepared to give the same speech 6 times,” says David Garvin, Business Administration Professor at Harvard Business School. “People want to know why you think they can make it through the change, and how you’re going to help them through it.” Just as important as keeping central messages top of mind is making sure employees are comfortable returning the favor. Get feedback about how the plan is being received, through one-on-ones and surveys. If feedback strongly dictates, adjust the plan accordingly. This culture of open communication helps to solidify organizational commitment and stave off change fatigue.
When rolling out a change initiative, plan for the unplannable by creating a flexible timeline. A common cause of change fatigue is the arbitrary adherence to a strict, pre-conceived schedule for change. Things may breakdown, new factors may emerge, and a big adjustment, or even a reset may be warranted. These measures need to be a part of the change manager’s toolbox, and are largely dependent on proper feedback channels, to know when they might become necessary. Stay agile, and don’t let a desire to move quickly become an obstacle for lasting change.
Adjust Bandwidth Accordingly
Adapting to change takes time, and for most employees, it’s time they don’t have on top of current duties. That means that if a given change has become a priority, that prioritization needs to be reflected in employee workload. Elise Olding, VP of research at Gartner, says, “[d]ealing with change consumes the already finite bandwidth people have available to devote to their work…When the limit is reached, the result is change fatigue.” Offloading work, suffering a temporary lapse in productivity, and allowing employees the time to re-balance their schedules and workflow are all realities brought on by change. Creating an architecture or map for change, also known as a change model, will help ensure that this operations transformation is done smoothly, with consideration for all departments.
Countless studies have illuminated how vital employee engagement is to the success of organizations and the changes they initiate. Change fatigue is widely considered to be one of the leading causes of poor engagement, and with the accelerating rate of change among organizations worldwide, it will start to become a familiar challenge.
In her article about the effects of change fatigue on employees and company culture, Dr. Dawn-Marie Turner, organizational change specialist, says, “As the change fatigue continues, employees disengage. Disengagement is when your employees come to work, but their commitment, contribution, and value doesn’t. An engaged employee comes to work asking, ‘How can I make a difference?’ or, ‘How can I contribute?’ A disengaged employee comes to work asking, ‘What will I get out of it?’ Or, ‘Is it time to go home yet?’”
The point of change is not to merely survive, but to grow stronger though the process. Change fatigue just might be the main obstacle to this outcome, but with the proper communication, planning, flexibility, and empathy, change will strengthen the cultural fabric of your organization, long after it’s rolled out.