Change Fatigue is a choice
I’ve spent the past six months researching change fatigue trying to figure out if it’s a ‘thing’ or a convenient term to silence a more complex conversation. Here’s what I found.
In summary, for employees, the experience of change fatigue is real and full-blown traumatic at times, let’s acknowledge that first. Preventing and ‘curing’ change fatigue appears to be 100% possible, but it’s a matter of organisational willingness and leadership quality. The reason we’ve not come closer to a workable solution is because we’re talking about the wrong things, end up treating symptoms and blaming the wrong people for the resulting issues. It's a choice made by people who don't have to experience the consequences in their everyday lives.
After 2+ years of pandemic woes and a general sense of unease with the world around us, everywhere I turned someone would say something like; “Oh, you work in change management? Yeah, there’s certainly a lot of change fatigue here”. And then change the topic. Or they’d share some horrifying/confusing examples and then conclude with a sweeping statement like: “If only staff were <fill in buzzword>”, “if we could just be <your favourite management term here>”.
Always with that hint of passive aggressive judgment that employees just weren’t trying hard enough. That the human failing to stand fast in the face of adversity is at the core of organisations seeing higher numbers of burnout and disengagement than ever before. That makes my blood boil, almost as much as the ‘change resistance’ narrative. Because it victim-blames the people least responsible for the whole thing.
Yep, this is going to be one of those write-ups, you can still stop reading now…
What gets me the most is the lack of accountability for the possibly crushing consequences of ‘strategic’ decisions being made. The lack of ownership for wavering priorities and absent compassion and not a peep about what is practically being done about the root cause of the issue. Just a very tepid acknowledgement of the situation and we’re moving on. Going by the expressions on the faces of people in the room, ranging from unease to discomfort to bewilderment and frustrated resignation, I imagined not much was done at all.
Like resistance, change fatigue has been an easy go-to at least as long as I’ve been in the profession, let’s say 15-20 years. Some of the research I found dates back to the 1980’s but I reckon that if you include terms as weariness, saturation, tiredness, exhaustion and cynicism (arguably all different from fatigue) you can probably go back all the way to the early 1920’s.
You just know terminology is mainstream when even the Australian Public Service Commission has a (very decent) section on change fatigue. Their definition probably sounds familiar and paints a picture of dejected defeat:
“Change fatigue is a condition characterised by lingering mental and physical tiredness associated with organisational change. The sufferer feels neither excitement nor optimism about the change. At an individual level people may experience apathy, disengagement, fatigue and frustration.”
The book Working by the wonderfully named Studs Terkel, written in 1972, is a beautiful time capsule full of snapshots from regular working-class people talking about their jobs, and they have a lot to say about change fatigue too, they just call it by different names. 50 years later and we’re still figuring out the same things, but the workspaces look nicer and attitudes towards diversity and inclusion have shifted a bit, but not as much as you’d expect and certainly not as much as needed.
Simon Terry probably said it best in 2020: “Change fatigue. Resilience fatigue. Agility fatigue. WFH fatigue. Video-conference fatigue. Online schooling fatigue. Restriction fatigue. Conflict fatigue. Fatigue fatigue. 2020 – the international year of fatigue.” Didn’t change much over 2021 or 2022…
I wanted to offer more than just opinions and observations, however true, so I dug in and didn’t stop at a quick Google search and some quippy one-liners. I read as many journals, books and scientific papers as I could find and with an all-access pass to a university library and worldwide research networks, that’s about as good a job as you can do for desk-research. I was underwhelmed to say the least.
Given the amount of noise and ‘expert opinions’ out there, I was expecting a vast library of research and not the 20 or so papers and articles I found. At first, I was hopeful, finding things like
Mapping the nomological network of change fatigue: identifying predictors, mediators and consequences, Antecedents and outcome of employee change fatigue and change cynicism and Change fatigue: Development and initial validation of a new measure.
After skipping the 50% that is about nurses in Health Care during a pandemic, because it only partly applied to controllable organisational processes, I started reading articles and books. Soon after, I momentarily lost all will to live when a 2022 (!!) publication casually misquoted the authors saying: “as many as 75% of organizational change initiatives fail (Anand and Barsoux, 2017). They don’t say that at all! The number 75 isn’t even in the original article, aargh! Another publication is from 2011, which is really a different world dealing with the effects of a different crisis (GFC) and most of the others are interesting, but too academic to be of practical use at this stage.
Okay, so academia didn’t come to the rescue as it normally does for me. No worries, I’ll go online and see what smart people have to say. According to Gartner the answer is "Build trust and Team cohesion to reduce the risk of change fatigue" and the next 20 search results are essentially copying that same text, but with different pictures.
Not bad advice on a strategic multi-year level, but if the solution was really that simple, wouldn’t we have done it already? Building trust takes time and the same can be said for team cohesion, if it happens at all. Not to mention that it’s an enormous ask, bordering on gaslighting for a workforce that has been through rough and uncertain times to put it mildly.
The Center for Creative Leadership has some more useful things to say, even it reads like instructions for putting a new coat of paint on a sinking ship, talking about building resilience and shocking leaders into action.
1. Help the organisation continually prioritise change efforts (silence on the how…)
2. Recognize and talk about how change is both the beginning of something new and the ending of something that previously was embraced as a best practice (Is it just me or is this super-patronising?)
3. Teach employees evidence-based techniques for managing stress, building resilience, and deploying coping skills in the face of high demands (please note the shift of responsibility for the solution here)
4. Focus on building a psychologically safe culture in which people can take interpersonal risks by speaking their truths (all for it, but this takes years and you’re starting from behind)
Perhaps Prosci can be of help then? Well, at least they differentiate between change saturation and change fatigue, which is helpful in the broader conversation. They also offer a neat list of indicators that would help even the most talentless and emotionally incompetent person to recognise change fatigue:
· Noise – More frequent and louder complaints about changes
· Apathy – Growing indifference about project changes, with some completely disengaging; employees stop asking questions
· Burnout – Employees are visibly tired
· Stress – People seem anxious about changes
· Resistance – Some push back on change with more energy while others don't resist at all
· Negativity – Cynicism prevails
· Scepticism – Individuals express doubt about change success
Then they go on to tell us that ‘being pro-active is the key’, and this is how you do it:
1. Gather feedback directly from employees and people managers on how they are perceiving change and the level they perceive.
2. Conduct satisfaction surveys, interviews and small-group sessions to ask individuals about the amount of change they’re experiencing and how they’re reacting to it.
3. Actively manage project resource allocation and scheduling, and use mapping tools and enterprise management tools to gauge employee fatigue.
4. Use assessments to measure the amount of change and its impact on individuals and groups.
5. Evaluate the type and number of change efforts underway to understand potential impacts on individuals. Teams can also include this information in regular reporting.
6. Assess the time available to handle change at the employee level.
7. Measure success rates of change efforts over time, considering the amount of change happening in the organization.
8. Conduct comparative observations to evaluate the amount of change taking place and the level of discontent people are exhibiting in different parts of the organization.
While this is the most practical list I came across so far, imagine being the poor CM who has to pull all this data together, connect the dots, pull the presentation together, get the leadership team on board, get the resources and then write the implementation plan for making those incremental changes. By this stage people have seen absolutely no improvement and quite possibly things have gotten worse.
Please note that half of the list is about determining the amount of change taking place. If you’ve ever attempted to do this in an organisation larger than 100 people, you’ll know how incredibly hard this can be, even if you have software to help you and colleagues willing to put in the time.
It took the research and writings of Mollie West Duffy and Liz Fosselien (big fan of their books, check them out) to say what should be obvious but clearly isn’t: “Leaders need to recognise that change exhaustion is not an individual issue, but a collective one that needs to be addressed at the team or organisation level”. Yes please. It takes a special kind of person to see that something is not working and go: "You know what, let's just keep going and even better, let's do some more of what's not working".
Their advice to managers with a preference for ‘anxious fixing’, referencing that same Gartner report again, but drawing different conclusions is:
• Pause to acknowledge change, and the discomfort that comes with it.
• Adopt the mantra, “I am a person who is learning _______.”
• Make a plan from which you will deviate.
• Invest in rituals.
We’re almost there now, with the responsibility getting assigned to the right party and the focus shifting from ‘overcoming’ towards ‘experiencing’ change. But there’s one thing left unsaid. Maybe it’s taboo, maybe it’s just so alien a concept that no-one is even seriously considering it, but here’s a crazy idea: Can you do less change? Or none? At least for a while?
Every time I raise this as an option, leaders and managers just look at me like I’ve grown a second head. Like it’s the most ridiculous thing they’ve ever heard. If I then challenge them and ask how those 12 large simultaneous change initiatives are going, how many are on track and what the reason was they got me in to begin with, you see a glimmer of realisation appear. But it gets squashed pretty quickly because we need to DO things, make things HAPPEN… aaaaaand we’re back to anxious fixing the next day. Talk about your definition of insanity, whoever actually said it.
Oddly, the most sensical writings I found about change fatigue come from the National Institute for Children’s Health Quality and a New Zealand consulting outfit Their advice seems glaringly obvious, but most things that make sense do, they just don’t get practiced as much as you’d think.
Let 2023 be the year where we finally stop spreading the misconception that if we just work hard enough we can make all the change happen at once. It’s not necessary and it doesn’t make things better. And that should be reason enough to try something different because whatever we think we’re doing, it’s not working and it's hurting people for no good reason.