Change weariness – helping staff cope with change

By | 02/03/2021

When you look around your organisation at the moment, there is one fact hard to ignore – change weariness is increasing. It was even before Corona but is now receiving a critical push with the pandemic. When you reflect on your own situation, you might even notice it in your own thinking and behaviour. And therefore it is certainly a topic that will receive more attention among communicators and change managers in the next months and years.

In literature, you often find the term “organizational change fatigue” – a term that I’m not a big fan of. In my experience there isn’t really something like an “organizational change” – even large-scale change projects eventually rely on individual change, when individual colleagues need to adapt their actions, thinking or attitudes.

Too much change creates saturation and eventually frustration

In any case, we have of course observed already an accelerating pace of change over recent decades. Think of the amount of newly introduced software or the decreasing interval between restructuring projects. Think of the impact of technological change on your private life, but also of changes in the political, economic and social environment around you. Further pushed by universally available and present (social) media, many people feel pressured and overwhelmed by the amount of change. Corona has given this development some further momentum and has produced a record amount of changes over an extremely short timespan – but eventually, this is pushing more and more people beyond their limits of what amount of change they can cope with. Just like a runner pushed by an Adrenaline kick, the high urgency lets people survive a bit longer. But when the pandemic pressure decreases we will very likely witness a number of victims.

For the human mind, it doesn’t so much matter whether the change occurs in the private or professional part of life. People can only adapt to a number of initiatives at a certain pace at any one time. And when they have reached a level of change saturation, they can’t cope with further input. In such cases, additional change causes frustration (this is not the company that I joined anymore!), a sense of isolation (Is it just me who can’t cope?) and decreasing motivation (and increasing staff turnover).

Strengthen the holistic view of change

Organizations need to learn how to best deal with such competition for people’s change capacity. And internally it will force organizations to adopt a more holistic view of change management. In the past, change initiatives were run on a need-basis. Whoever had to change a tool, process or system initiated the necessary change management and communication measures. Check your own workplace and you will be able to name at least 3 or 4 significant change initiatives that are ongoing – from new software introductions to adapted admin processes in HR or Finance, to new sustainability guidelines or even changes in the business model. As competition for staff’s adaptability with change increases – central change management authority and competence need strengthening. Initiatives need to be orchestrated and finetuned to achieve the best possible impact and give staff a chance to adapt at one’s own pace to the changing landscape.

Strengthen community and create awareness of what remains stable

But there is more that companies can do than to only adopt a holistic change view. Most importantly they need to reassure their staff that they are on the right track. Nothing is blocking change more than people’s uncertainty about the right direction. In addition, it is worth highlighting the connecting forces by showing what remains actually stable in the underlying structures, culture and values. Reminding people that they are not alone and not left behind counters the feeling of isolation and frustration. Workplace wellness and balance programs show that the company cares. Social and community programs create the necessary social bonds that produce a feeling of safety and belonging.

In any case, change weariness is something to watch out for. It sometimes (but not always) is easy to spot if you listen to people and watch how they (inter)act. Running regular pulse checks among colleagues provide good indicators for the level of satisfaction/frustration. And if you see signs of change saturation – find ways to make changes more digestible for everyone through better management of simultaneous change projects, better employee care programs and a focus on your organisation’s community culture and connecting values.

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