Too Tired to Change

Five-year-olds are a source of great wisdom, if only we listened more often for the lessons they can teach us.  In response to an earlier bedtime imposed by her mother at the start of the school year, Elizabeth said, “Mommy, last week we changed what we eat because Daddy is on a diet.  Yesterday we had to get out warm clothes and put away my sandals.  And now you want me to go to bed at a new time and go to school every day.  I’m just too tired to change one more time.”

As Elizabeth so aptly conveyed, when change piles up, it is stressful – and stress causes fatigue.  Elizabeth was done with change.  She needed a break from it.  Yet with her first full year of kindergarten starting, the onslaught of change was just beginning.  Elizabeth was in for a long period of change fatigue.

As funny as Elizabeth’s stresses seem to us, we can identify immediately with her feelings.  We’re in a period of unprecedented – and incredibly rapid – change in how we work and how we live.  “I just started figuring out the new accounting system at work and now I have to figure out if I want to adopt Apple Pay in my personal life,” moaned Ellen.

The necessity for change in the work world is real.  The environment – political, social – is unstable.  Competition is fierce and rapidly shifting.  Innovations create swift disruptions.  So saying ‘no’ to change is not an option.  Like Elizabeth facing kindergarten, we have to face long periods of change – and the change fatigue that accompanies it.

Change fatigue is not just an uncomfortable mental state.  It has real – and significant – impacts on business efficiency and effectiveness.  Dawn-Marie Turner, PhD, says of change fatigue, “It is a general sense of apathy towards the organizational change(s). Individuals with change fatigue have neither the energy to defend the status quo nor enough interest to move through the change process.”

This is a deadly combination.  When change fatigue is widespread, you as leaders lose the discriminatory instincts of your people – their ability to foresee both opportunities and landmines.  And you lose their best abilities to organize, control, and execute to get the change in place.  Even more worrisome, it affects their day jobs.  Change is, by its nature, piled on top of their ‘real work’, and they become less efficient, less productive, less motivated in their everyday work when they feel the stress of change fatigue.

Leaders need to be alert to the factors that contribute to change fatigue, and plan for it.  They need to think a little like weathermen.  What are some of the ‘atmospheric conditions’ that are gathering that could bring change fatigue to an untenable level?

  • How many change initiatives are going on at one time in the organization?  Do they hit any one area unduly?
  • What other things are going on that are affecting peoples’ work – higher volumes?  A new competitive entry?  A new system or regulation to deal with?
  • Has there been turnover, or downsizing, or organizational change that is creating workload shifts?
  • Is there good collaboration throughout the organization, or does competition or isolationism keep people from working effectively toward common goals?
  • Are there systemic changes that affect personal lives – changes in health insurance or reward systems or physical location?

It’s not just the corporate change initiatives that add up to create change fatigue, and leaders need to see the whole picture.  When multiple things are in play, there’s a high likelihood of disruptive change fatigue.

Leaders can take some steps to plan for – and alleviate – change fatigue.

  • Prioritize change initiatives, especially looking to avoid overloading any one group of people.  Prioritize in light of external changes that are happening, not only internal ones (e.g. regulatory change, need to respond to a competitor’s new product announcement, likely merger of competitors or competitor departure from the marketplace).
  • Ask questions; show interest.  Invite participation early on about whether and how to make the change; listen and use the input.  During the change, find out what’s causing difficulty and what people want and need to keep their energy level in the positive zone.  Acknowledge their difficulty and their contribution.  Express appreciation frequently – and genuinely.
  • Resource generously.  Nothing spells support better than a willingness to provide whatever help is needed.
  • Get the ducks lined up.  Make sure you’re removing cultural obstacles, leadership spats, decision-making bottlenecks, and other annoyances from the mix.  Often, these things that can’t be controlled from the trenches are the most exhausting.
  • Provide clarity about the Yellow Brick Road.  If people can see where all of the change is headed, what is at the end of the rainbow, and what else is likely to be encountered along the journey, they can contextualize when they feel overwhelmed.
  • Make time for regrouping.  Where possible, give breaks in between change initiatives for change to settle in.  Throughout periods of change, create occasions to have fun, to look back in amazement at all that’s been accomplished, to renew relationships.

Leaders can take a few notes from Elizabeth’s mom.  She said to her daughter, “Honey, you are right that it’s a lot of change for one little girl.  If it’s tough for you to eat Daddy’s new diet, I’ll make you separate food for a couple weeks till you get used to all the school changes.  There’s a lot more change coming in kindergarten, but we’ll talk every day about how it’s going and you can tell me how you’re feeling.  We’ll work together to make the changes as easy as we can.  And every Friday you and Daddy and I will celebrate another good week of school by going out after dinner for an ice cream.”

How many Elizabeths are sitting in the offices and cubies of your organization, too tired to change?  And how will you liberate your organization from the crippling effects of their fatigue?

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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