Change Fatigue: How to Recognize It and How to Fix It

Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying, "If you aren't changing, you're finished." In today's fast-paced business world, it seems this is even more relevant than ever before. There are many case studies of companies failing because they aren't changing quickly enough to keep up with competition, or else making themselves irrelevant by not adapting. This continues to present the need for organizations to change and change quickly. Change is a positive thing. 

However, there is one potentially massive and often overlooked pitfall of change that can be just as detrimental as not changing at all: change fatigue. In a fear of being left behind, we may move so fast that we wear out all of our employees. 

Symptoms of change fatigue: 

  • A general sense of apathy or passive resignation towards organizational changes by individuals or teams. 
  • Organizational change efforts that are unfocused, uninspired and unsuccessful. 
  • Overwhelming cynicism and skepticism along regarding change and work.
  • Exhaustion as a state of being where; constantly feeling depleted and overextended beyond one's ability to handle workplace demands. 
  • A decrease in commitment to the organization; experiencing lower levels of job satisfaction and beginning to look for employment elsewhere. 
  • Employees constantly questioning the intention of their leaders or a general distrust of leaders and co-workers. 
  • Employees participating in efforts to sabotage a change initiative (YIKES)

Have you ever been asked to go from point A to point B with your team, only to find out mid-project that the goal changed to C…and then D…and then E. By which point you don't even know what the goal is anymore. 

What about when you're in the middle of a major new strategy rollout and then all of sudden, leadership wants to add on another at the same time. The load itself, ineffective communication, and unclear vision or goals begin the course toward complete burnout. In many cases, these change initiatives start to stack without any additional budget, resources, or people.

Constantly seeing a revolving door of failed projects and half-started new initiatives, why would employees muster the energy to fight for the newest one? In this change fatigue climate, middle-managers start waiting until things "blow over" or until "the next fad fizzles" instead of throwing themselves into the support of their top leader newest shiny initiative. 

Change is a must today. I've written articles on the best way to communicate during change, on understanding how different personalities experience change, on ways to better manage change. However, if leaders don't acknowledge the amount and rate of change, all of these tips and research won't help. Change is hard (understatement of the year) so I'm not saying it will be easy. But assessing your team and the climate to make sure change fatigue isn't running rampant is extremely important and often overlooked.  

Here are a few ways to assess and address change fatigue in your organization: 

  1. Avoid generalized "pump-up" speeches without tangible action and specific requests. In other words, BE SPECIFIC. I was a part of an organization once where my leader would pop by my office and say "Big change is coming, get ready! We're gonna change things around here, we're going to make things better…" and on and on… but he would never sit down and make specific plans with me or bring continuity to specific initiatives. It is difficult to rally around a general concept and it's frustrating for employees to become emotionally invested in changing things over and over again without a specific path to get there.
  2. Listen to your people. When they say they're burnt out, find out why. Assuming people are lazy and "don't want to change" doesn't help anyone. We all know people like that are out there, but if you've done your job in hiring good people and they are telling you what they need, then listen to them and get to the bottom of where this might be coming from. It could be addressing the amount of change or the rate of change, but it could just as easily be a resource issue or even a self-management issues. Sweeping negative attitudes under the rug helps no one. Find ways to teach constructive criticism and encourage employees to take complaints to people that can do something about it rather than just allowing the typical "water cooler talk" which continuously stirs the negative attitudes creating more fatigue and sometimes even manufacturing it when it wasn't there before. 
  3. Honor the past and bridge into the future. A large part of change is having to point out how the way we are doing things is not working to get buy-in. This, though, can get tricky as people in your organizations are the ones that originally BUILT those things. This is where ego gets in the way and it wears people out hearing how much their past work was ineffective or irrelevant now. One article about change fatigue states, "When team members feel the way they did things before is being criticized, they are more likely to dig in their heels to defend past practices. Instead of criticizing the way things were, honor it. And then lead a discussion about what a new vision with even better results could look like." – Peter Barron
  4. Close the communication loop. This takes so much effort and intentionality from leaders but it's worth it if you want employees to trust you are being responsible and respectful of their efforts, ideas, and time. Let them know how things ended up. If a project paused because of budget or legal or staffing or whatever – TELL THEM. Don't leave multiple, open-ended changes hanging in their minds. Define what initiatives they are currently expected to worry about and then give them feedback and updates on results so they know their efforts are seen and are making a tangible difference.
  5. Constantly and ruthlessly focus on culture. The more leaders cultivate an atmosphere where their employees learn to manage stress, time, and grow as individuals and embrace and learn from failure, the more change fatigue can be managed at an individual level. Pouring into your people and building trust within an organization will accelerate the velocity of change without burning people out because they will be able to better manage themselves and are held accountable for a healthy work culture instead of cultivating a toxic culture of fatigue.  

It's not enough just to know how to set a vision and communicate during change. Instead, it is vital to acknowledge and listen to the culture that is present within your organization and recognize when change fatigue is running rampant. What other tips have you found to be helpful?

About the Author

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Jessica Beans is a researcher and facilitator specializing in group dynamics, leadership, and change management. She holds an undergraduate degree in public relations and graphic design and a masters degree in organizational leadership with an emphasis in change management and strategic innovation.

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