How to overcome ‘change fatigue’ to manage successful transformations
09 Nov 2023
Humans have always found change difficult. But today, employees are overwhelmed by upheavals on all fronts. Organizations must engage teams fully, support them through transformations, and deliver results.
Surveys by Gartner reveal that in 2016, respondents had experienced an average of two workplace changes, such as reorganizations or new processes. By 2022, that number had jumped fivefold to 10 changes. In 2016, nearly three-quarters of employees said they embraced change. That figure plunged to only 38% in 2022, Gartner revealed in April.
“Change fatigue” is sweeping workplaces worldwide. But why is change so intrinsically challenging? And why are employees particularly exhausted and resistant to change now?
Why we resist change
Multiple psychological and neurological factors make humans prone to resist change. Evolution has wired our brains to prefer stability and predictability. Sudden routine shifts require cognitive effort to process new scenarios and adapt behaviors.
Change often provokes anxiety, triggering our instinctive “fight or flight” response. Ambiguity sparks stress. Employees crave details about how the change will impact their roles, workloads, and job security. Without transparent communication, imaginations run wild.
Change also ruptures our sense of identity, competence, and belonging. New processes force us to reassess our skills and status. Reorganizations disrupt working relationships. Little wonder employees often react defensively to protect egos and perceived territory.
Leaders may feel threatened by initiatives that challenge established norms and power structures. Lack of psychological safety stemming from distrust or poor relationships aggravates all these tensions.
Current pressures driving change fatigue
On top of these ingrained human responses, today’s world is bombarding employees with relentless, overlapping upheavals.
The coronavirus pandemic overturned personal and professional routines for over two years. Employees have had to adapt to remote work, hybrid arrangements, new technologies, and oscillating precautions. Many are still processing grief, trauma, social isolation, and general uncertainty.
Economic instability and inflation are spurring organizations to transform at pace to control costs. Geopolitical conflicts – notably in Ukraine and, more recently, in the Middle East – have disrupted supply chains and created volatility. Technology continues advancing rapidly, demanding new skills. Additionally, climate change necessitates sustainability transformations across industries.
Moreover, McKinsey research – from just before the pandemic, when disruption multiplied – showed that around 70% of major change initiatives and innovation projects fail, amplifying cynicism. Employees who have weathered poorly handled restructurings or botched software implementations understandably balk at the next project.
With lives and workplaces in flux on multiple fronts, people long for respite from disruption. But organizational change cannot stop. How can leaders overcome resistance and “change fatigue” to implement transformations successfully?
The Proven Path to overcoming resistance
Oliver Wight has over 50 years of experience equipping organizations to lead change skillfully – and our time-tested Proven Path methodology structures transformations into three logical phases.
This integrated focus on leadership capability, employee experience, and project execution offers a potent formula for overcoming resistance and change fatigue.
1. Lead with vision
The starting point is instilling a clear vision and urgency for change among leadership. The Lead phase involves educating executives on required mindsets, expected returns, and their role in driving change.
Without leadership commitment, initiatives flounder. It’s often the leadership teams that are sponsors of these projects so they also need to understand what good sponsorship looks like as a critical role for any change initiative's success.
Moreover, leaders must paint a compelling picture of the future state and explain “the why” behind desired changes. This vision and purpose motivate teams through uncertainty and disruption.
Leaders also need to role model desired mindsets and behaviors. Additionally, they must take a helicopter view of how a new initiative fits with the current situation. Is there – physical and mental – capacity? Does something need to stop or be reshuffled to make this happen?
Employees logically resist if they undermine change initiatives through mixed signals or lip service. But visible, courageous commitment is contagious. Also, it’s important to ensure the change initiatives being considered have a strong connection to strategy and fit the organization’s desired cultural destination.
2. Transform attitudes and processes
With leadership aligned, the Transform phase engages employees themselves in redesigning processes. Our experts mentor staff to become adept change agents.
This participation and upskilling builds psychological ownership over the transformation. People support changes they help shape. We also ensure roles and responsibilities are clear before implementation.
Engaging hearts and minds requires addressing that crucial “what’s in it for me” question. Leaders must connect change to individual benefits like career development, work satisfaction, and productivity improvements that make life easier. Notably, McKinsey research found that if frontline employees are empowered to take the initiative to drive change it elevates the chance of success by a whopping 71%.
Two-way communication is vital throughout. Employees need onboarding onto the vision and regular updates on progress, setbacks, and milestones. They want transparency, not surprising developments.
We help leaders and teams build resilience through community support and self-care habits. Initiatives must also be scheduled sensitively, considering resource constraints and organizational rhythms.
Our approach is always to teach people to fish and not catch fish for them, to paraphrase the famous proverb. The transfer of knowledge and the building of ability across the organization is key here.
3. Sustain gains
The final Own phase cements change through metrics, coaching, and leadership oversight. Sustainability separates true transformation from short-lived change projects.
Metrics track progress and expose obstacles. Leaders regularly review reports, providing evidence-based feedback to teams. This fosters accountability and continuous improvement.
Ongoing mentoring and training help employees sustain new capabilities. Refresher workshops will help to reduce knowledge decay. As mindsets shift, behaviors are embedded.
Leaders publicly celebrate wins, however small, giving recognition and reassurance during the often-bumpy transformation journey. But they also promptly address any lingering pockets of resistance before these endanger progress.
Our brains are hardwired for us to go back to our old ways of working so we deliberately need to reward them and make it as easy as possible for them to do something new. As such, it is vital to identify and measure change KPIs, like adoption rate and resistance levels. These are a great way to course correct.
Finally, considering that change is the only constant, it is a good idea to hardwire elements into employee induction and organization playbooks, so the new way of doing things is retained in memory.
Experience beats fatigue
Today’s confluence of crises has stretched employee change tolerance to the limits. But organizational transformations cannot wait. Leaders now face an imperative to deliver excellent change leadership.
The Proven Path approach blends that crucial strategic vision with detailed project governance, communication, and capability building. Our change experts help leadership teams master and apply these tools.
Well-executed change is ultimately an uplifting shared experience that boosts engagement, performance, and innovation. By following the Proven Path, leaders can reignite that spark within their teams to transform their organization successfully.