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 projects – and 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.