Your team, which is usually excited by new ideas and the possibility of change, seems burned out. Uncharacteristically, they’re complaining about all the work that needs to happen to turn things around, maybe even arguing against your proposals. Or worse, they’re not complaining at all—they’re just checked out, apathetic about whatever happens.
This is Change Fatigue: a feeling of being overwhelmed by all the change or disruption taking place. It’s determined by several factors:
- The number of changes introduced. The sheer number of change initiatives can be overwhelming. This is also connected to the amount of existing work employees are asked to do—it’s hard to accomplish change work on top of day-to-day responsibilities.
- The pace of change. Change can feel like it’s happening too fast. Keep in mind this is relative: a reorg might take 14 months and still feel relentless.
- Inconsistent or conflicting change messages. When organizations don’t coordinate change at the top, it leads to an incoherent narrative and conflicting demands.
- Incomplete change. Introducing a new change before a new behavior is fully ingrained leads to backsliding. It also means teams don’t have a chance to learn from what they did wrong, so they just keep repeating the same mistakes in the future.
- Concurrent changes that reduce agency and autonomy. When change feels like something done to staff, rather than with, it reduces agency (their ability to impose their own choices) and autonomy (their freedom from coercion). And if enough concurrent changes like this happen, change fatigue is often the result.
If left unaddressed, change fatigue can lead to exhaustion and turnover within your existing workforce, as well as cynicism
It’s important to note that Change Fatigue is not:
- Overwork. It’s not just having too much work to do (although this certainly is a problem, and should be addressed). It’s specifically related to the amount of change teams are expected to cope with, which may involve doing additional work.
- Organizational Change Cynicism. When fatigued, teams still believe change can happen—they’re just too exhausted to participate. If they were cynical, they’d believe that change couldn’t happen at all. However, if not addressed, fatigue can lead to cynicism.
Change Fatigue isn’t evenly distributed throughout the organization, either. It’s most likely to affect middle managers (as they’re the ones typically responsible for implementing change, and so the first affected by any change) and frontline employees (since change initiatives trickle down through the organization, they are the end recipients).
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If you’re a leader, then, it’s easy to forget about Change Fatigue—but if left unaddressed, it can lead to exhaustion and turnover within your existing workforce, as well as cynicism, which may in fact be a greater risk to your change initiative.
To reduce the likelihood your team will experience fatigue:
- Stop and simplify. Change doesn’t always mean adding work—it could involve not doing something, like eliminating meetings and reports, or reducing complexity. Before introducing a new change initiative, ask: What can you stop entirely? If it feels too risky to stop entirely, pause it for a week—if nobody notices its absence, it may be a good candidate for a permanent hiatus.
- Reprioritize other work. It’s hard to balance your “regular job” with the additional work of change. Work with teams to identify the most time-consuming projects and asses whether they can be deprioritized in favor of change work. Then, in regular 1:1s, check in on their workload and help them focus on the most critical work. If work can’t be eliminated or postponed, try incorporating different behaviors into existing work—like introducing a new decision-making process into a standing meeting, rather than calling for a separate, additional meeting.
- Provide context for the change. Comb the rest of the organization for other ongoing change initiatives so you can make sure you’re consistent. Then, identify the benefits or tradeoffs that the organization is making to help people come to terms with the change, and understand it’s not just “change for the sake of change.” This is especially important for frontline employees who may not have access to all the information that upper management is exposed to on a regular basis.
- Manage expectations. When fatigued teams hear about an upcoming change, they may initially assume it will require hours and hours of their time, when you really have a more limited request. Get clear about what behaviors you want teams to change, and what’s really required to achieve it.
- Offer support and training at the right time. Many times within organizations, there’s a delay between announcing a change and making a change—and all the support and effort goes into the announcement. Where people really need help is making the change, and dealing with the constant, daily, small-scale change, so plan your roll-out accordingly.
- Encourage room for agency and autonomy. Even when a change is driven by top-down needs, it’s possible to give staff space to make choices and feel more in control of their situation and, as a result, less fatigued. When you’re planning what changes need to be made, focus foremost on what outcomes the organization needs (e.g. profitability) and then explore how much you really need to dictate from there or if there’s more to be gained by setting an entrepreneurial challenge.
- Build in time to reflect. If people bounce from change to change without having time to reflect on what they’ve learned, there’s a big risk that they’ll keep making the same mistakes. Check in 1:1 with the team regularly to see how they’re metabolizing change, and hold regular retros as teams to encourage a habit of reflection and iteration.
- Build resilience. People adapt to change better when they feel like they’re in a supportive environment, so in the long term, increase trust and a sense of belonging. In addition to increasing communication, this means prioritizing connections: finding common ground between team members, understanding how others think and make decisions, and cultivating enthusiasm and warmth when the team is gathered together.