Control in times of uncertainty: how can you combat change fatigue?

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Organisations are under increasing pressure to be more agile, competitive and customer focused, and a key role of HR is to support them through the process of change.

Although change is essential, there is evidence that around 70% of all organisational change initiatives fail. In many cases, failure is exacerbated by employees’ mistrust of changes imposed from above, along with feelings of uncertainty and anxiety about their impact.

There is growing evidence, however, that one of the most common reasons for the failure of organisational change efforts fail is change fatigue. This article draws on my own research and that of others to help understand change fatigue, how it can manifest itself in organisations and how it can be managed.

What is change fatigue?

Change fatigue is a sense of passive resignation or apathy towards organisational changes. Put more simply, it is when people believe that too many changes have taken place in their organisation.  

It is essential to manage change fatigue - not only to increase employees’ acceptance of change, but also to protect their wellbeing and effectiveness through the change process.

What is the impact on employees?

Change fatigue can have a negative impact on individuals and organisations that is wide-ranging. If employees have experienced what they may consider unreasonable and unnecessary change, or if too many changes without a period of consolidation have been introduced in their organisation, they may react to new initiatives with learned helplessness. This involves feelings of powerlessness as they feel unable to influence events that are happening to them.

Studies have found that change fatigue can be highly stressful. It has also been linked to burnout, which is characterised by emotional exhaustion, cynical and negative attitudes, and reduced feelings of personal accomplishment.

People experiencing change fatigue may also feel alienated from their organisation as they feel their contribution or their opinions do not matter. Studies have also found that change fatigue can reduce job satisfaction, motivation and commitment to the job and encourage withdrawal behaviours such as absenteeism and turnover intentions.

...they feel their contribution or their opinions do not matter.

Change fatigue can also have serious consequences for job performance. It can deplete mental and physical energy and erode feelings of self-efficacy - people’s confidence in their abilities. Over time, change fatigue is also likely to stifle innovation and creativity and discourage the organisational citizenship behaviours that underpin organisational effectiveness.

The cynicism that is a common response to change fatigue can quickly transmit itself through an organisation, leading to a general atmosphere of negativity. Anxiety about change can also impair work-life balance and recovery processes as people may find it difficult to switch off from work concerns – this can threaten wellbeing and job performance.

How can we manage change fatigue?

  • Be aware of change fatigue and how it can manifest itself.  
  • Communicate the reasons why change is required and provide regular updates on the change process.
  • Formulate long-term strategic plans rather than relying on short-term reactive solutions.
  • Limit the number of changes (wherever possible); focus on small improvements, rather than top-down, large-scale transformations.
  • Highlight the previous change initiatives that have led to improvements.
  • Think carefully of the unintended consequences of any changes that may be introduced.
  • Accept that a reduction in performance or productivity may be inevitable. Changes are disruptive and will usually involve extra work, even if they are designed to reduce workload over the longer term.
  • Change doesn’t have to be imposed from the top. Employees are experts on their job so involve them in the process of change. Their suggestions may be more realistic and acceptable to the workforce in general. Listen to their concerns and take them seriously.
  • Remember that change places an enormous burden on managers who are required to ‘sell’ the new initiatives to their staff, even if they personally disagree with them.
  • Train managers on how to better support staff through the process of change.
  • Remember that it may take a while for change to be accepted, or to reap any benefits. For any change initiative to work, a period of consolidation is required to allow the changes to bed in.
  • Evaluate the long-term effectiveness of any change by asking staff at each level in the organisation.

About Gail Kinman

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07th Mar 2017 12:07

Change is nearly always driven from the top, prescribed from a recipe supplied by the usual big-name consultants who know little about the business environment the client operates in but do know how to fit the client into a box. There is no resultant sense of ownership throughout the organisation, rather a resignation that the employer has spent a lot of money on a so-called solution they know won't work. No matter what the academics say, most managements absolutely won't talk to the workforce. That's why big consultancies make so much money. Change is also a great management ploy for avoiding direct comparison with previous years!

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