Leading Past Change Fatigue

Over many years, we have witnessed countless leaders try to implement change, but instead create a sense of frustration and in the worst cases burn out their employees. This may seem like a classic case of what not to do, but this scenario is not unique to any kind of company, and it’s growing more common as the rate of change accelerates.

There are 2 main areas about how we interpret change we want to note here that we think contributes to the above situation.

Leaders are both over-optimistic and unrealistic about their change plans, leading to many mid-course corrections and poor outcomes. Taking on too many projects at once, not being clear enough about the vision and not having good enough change plans or not executing well enough.

Secondly, employees have unrealistic expectations of change processes. They may be overly negative due to past experiences or have unrealistic expectations about how much change is required.

Employees are constantly told they need to change processes and practices, only for all too often the leadership team to continue doing what they always do, and managers maintain their same old routines. Despite an initial surge of enthusiasm, nothing ever really changes. The irony is that change fatigue can set in, despite “the way we do things around here” remaining very much the same.

David Altman, the COO for the Center for Creative Leadership says, “What leaders must do is to help employees and managers to recalibrate their expectations,” David argues. “This is the world we live in now — change is a constant. There is no ‘getting back to normal.’ The message from leaders needs to be: ‘Let’s get ourselves in shape as individuals and as an organizational culture to embrace the opportunities and to manage the challenges of constant change in the dynamic world that we live in. Let’s equip ourselves together to become more resilient to accommodate that.’”

Leaders need to model the change that they want to see in their organisational culture and practices.

We have known for at least 20 years that change is difficult and that the way we typically go about it has a high chance of failure. Surveys — such as the recent CCL survey with Corporate Leaders — into cultural transformation found that change fatigue is one of the top 2 challenges faced when building organisational cultures. Other surveys also state that change initiatives flounder because companies lack the skills to sustain change over time. There is a critical psychological component to organisational change, and when the reasons and need for change are poorly communicated, everyone feels frustrated and deflated.

The idea that there’s a quick fix for culture can cause lots of problems. As Jay W. Lorsch and Emily McTague put it in their Harvard Business Review article, “Culture isn’t something you ‘fix’… cultural change is what you get after you’ve put new processes or structures in place to tackle tough business challenges…. Culture isn’t a destination. It morphs right along with the company’s competitive environment and objectives.”

Across all industries, many traditional, hierarchical global companies are struggling to adapt with sufficient speed and thus must change their mindsets about what is needed to survive and thrive in the new world order. Whether it’s financial changes post-2008, geopolitical crises, Brexit, immigration, or competition from Silicon Valley, the winds of change now constantly blow.

Neuroscience is telling us that the best approach to any sustainable change is to start with simple baby steps. If you have never run a marathon before, you wold be foolish to plan to do a marathon next week and train every day for the next 7 days to get ready. You might conceivably finish your marathon, but then what state would you be in? Companies with ingrained cultures must understand that “there is no end — this is continual evolution,” David says. The ability to be innovative and flexible is directly linked to the ability to constantly change and seek new opportunities.

It’s looking like individuals and organisations will need to gear up to be successful. How about we recognise this new reality and start to get ourselves in the best physical and mental shape we can as individuals and as organisations? This will help us to embrace the opportunities and to manage the challenges of constant change in the dynamic world that we live in.

Maybe it might help if we re framed change fatigue to change energy.  Dynamic, innovative, changing, and constantly learning: this is the new reality. And it is — with the right leadership — an exciting and galvanising message for employees.