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Change road

Strategy

Building change resilience to combat change fatigue

Published 20 July 2022 in Strategy • 6 min read

How can you best lead a team through change? Alyson Meister and Bettina Büchel explain how to communicate, plan and prioritize as you manage ambiguity and change in your organization. 

 

Change is not only inevitable, it is also essential. In today’s competitive and complex world, being able to plan, execute, and continuously adapt and innovate is key to an organization’s survival. As the American physicist William Pollard said, “Without change there is no innovation, creativity, or incentive for improvement”. However, when the change in your team or organization is so constant that you or your employees struggle to adjust, you may start to notice change fatigue setting in – that experience of overwhelm, exhaustion, or simple apathy associated with rapid and continuous change.  

When experiencing change fatigue, employees can become passive resistors of organizational change – not openly expressing (or even really noticing) their dissent, disengagement, or disinterest in it. It can result in one or many failed change projectsand a stressed, exhausted and frustrated workforce.  

Indeed, a survey of working Americans by the American Psychological Association found that employees experiencing organizational change felt more chronic stress, distrust and were subsequently more likely to say they intended to find a new job.  

Why is change so tiring? In general, we have a natural need to reduce uncertainty in our lives. Predictability makes our brain’s life easy. Even when we ourselves initiated the change, the process of change invokes uncertainty and puts our brains (and bodies) to work. We need to make sense of the change and what it means for us individually, and learn the new mindsets, skills, and behaviors associated with the change before we can embed and practice the ‘new normal’. On top of this comes the emotional experience of change, which can involve several positive emotions (e.g., excitement, anticipation) and negative ones (e.g., confusion, fear, cynicism). Sometimes the change doesn’t go as planned and we need to rethink, pivot, or sometimes even start again. All of this causes chronic stress, which eventually depletes both the body and the mind.  

As a leader of change, how can you help combat change fatigue? Here are a few key points to consider, particularly regarding how you manage and communicate your change efforts:  

  • Notice the signs of change fatigue. You might see that your ideas are met with waning enthusiasm, that employees are impatient or increasingly question the need to change, that cynicism pervades, that there is reluctance to speak about progress, that small wins are no longer celebrated, or finally, that those responsible for implementing changes are overstretched and even leaving the organization. 
  • Be intentional and consequential about your change announcements. If you announce a change initiative, and then don’t follow through, or it slowly fizzles through lack of commitment, you will break trust with your stakeholders and people will be even less enthusiastic the next time.  
  • Ensure that you communicate often and with plenty of warning about how and when changes are coming, how far along you are in the process, and most importantly when you deviate from the stated plan. It’s rare that employees complain that they hear too much from senior management, and more likely that they’re gaining information from second-hand-sources (which are often not entirely accurate).  
  • Be compassionate with yourself and others. Acknowledge that change consumes energy, even if it’s for the better. Give people time to adapt, and take time to recover from stress, and foster resilience in yourself, in others, and in the organization itself.  
  • Help people to plan and prioritize. Sometimes there are many different changes happening at the same time. As a change leader, you need to help your team to prioritize which change efforts they should be focusing on and when.
steering wheel
“As a change leader, you need to help your team to prioritize which change efforts they should be focusing on and when”

As an individual facing change, how can you combat your own change fatigue? 

When the organization continues to throw changes your way, you’ll need to build your resilience – the ability to adapt well in the face of threat, adversity or significant stress. It is a critical survival skill to assimilate to ongoing change, as it allows individuals, teams, and organizations to bounce back and regain energy after hardship or periods of difficulty. Resilience is dynamic, and it can be developed – and depleted  – over time. Investing in resilience pays off: higher levels of resilience have been shown to positively influence an individual’s ability to cope with the challenges of change, to boost their engagement and performance, and also increase health and wellbeing outcomes.  So how can you build and maintain your own resilience? While everyone tends to have their own unique ways, there are some common strategies which apply to all of us.

  • Develop your self-awareness. To combat slowly accumulating change fatigue, you need to first recognize that you’re starting to feel depleted – which will happen even more quickly when faced with change. What are your own unique signs of stress? Get into the habit of labeling your mental state: are you feeling optimistic, or pessimistic? Energized and excited? Identifying how you’re feeling is critical to then managing your energy and emotions. Notice the physical and behavioral indicators (e.g., tiredness, lack of empathy, sarcasm), mental and emotional indicators (e.g., worry, cynicism, apathy, demotivation) of accumulating change fatigue.
  • Actively manage your daily energy. Before you feel too depleted by change, it is important to develop a customized stress-recovery plan to be able to recover from the stress of change and their associated emotions. This involves things like detaching psychologically from work, dedicating time each day to a non-work-related activity, taking many micro-breaks during your workday, engaging in active stress-recovery activities (like exercise), and building a social and physical environment surrounding you that optimizes recovery (e.g. focusing on designing boundaries that promote stress relief).
  • Cultivate your social health. Do you have someone that you can go to when you’re feeling confused, frustrated, or when you simply need to vent about the ups and downs of ongoing change? Do you have trusting and positive relationships both inside and outside of work (e.g., a workplace best friend or a trusted coach)? Social relationships boost your resilience, and can help you manage stress, change your mood, and make sense of change and adversity.
  • (Re)discover the big picture: purpose and perspective. Sometimes we can become fatigued (or even bored) by the necessary detail involved in executing the change. In this case, taking time to step back and rediscover the big picture of the change(s) can help. What difference will this change make? What will be the tangible results when change comes alive? Your ability to see the broader picture, find meaning in adversity, put things into perspective and find learning opportunities during challenging times, can (re)cultivate engagement and growth – re-energizing you and those around you. It can also help to remember that change is rarely linear nor always on an upward trajectory. Small steps forward – and sometimes small steps backward – can matter just as much as the big moves, and those should be recognized and celebrated.

No matter whether you are leading change or an individual exposed to ongoing change, learning to notice the signs of change fatigue and then developing resilience is important both as you support your organization’s ability to respond to the competitive environment, and as you personally deal with the consequences of change. A well-managed process of change that is properly communicated to individuals who are equipped with the skills to navigate the stress stemming from change will be key to overcoming change fatigue. 

Authors

Alyson Meister - IMD Professor

Alyson Meister

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD

Alyson Meister is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior and Director of the Future Leaders program at IMD Business School. Specializing in the development of globally oriented, adaptive, and inclusive organizations, she has worked with of executives, teams, and organizations from professional services to industrial goods and technology. She also serves as co-chair of One Mind at Work’s Scientific Advisory Committee, with a focus on advancing mental health in the workplace. Follow her on Twitter: @alymeister.

Bettina Büchel - IMD Professor

Bettina Büchel

Professor of Strategy and Organization at IMD

Bettina Büchel has been Professor of Strategy and Organization at IMD since 2000. Her research topics include strategy implementation, new business development, strategic alliances, and change management. She is Program Director of the Internet of Things program and the Strategy Execution course.

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