Executive Briefing How to Combat Change Fatigue

Change is often good, but too much too quickly can be counterproductive.

By Dori Meinert Apr 1, 2015
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Here’s how it often goes down: Senior business leaders announce yet another major change in how the company does business and direct middle managers to implement it. Months later, if anyone even bothers to check, little or nothing has happened. The leaders have moved on to another “urgent” project.

Even while technological advances and globalization are forcing companies to reinvent themselves to survive, only about 54 percent of change initiatives succeed, according to recent research by Strategy& (formerly Booz & Co.) and the Katzenbach Center.

Frequent failed attempts at change are causing more companies to encounter “change fatigue,” when employees are exhausted from being faced with too many changes at once, says Micah Alpern, a senior associate with Strategy& in Chicago.

“There are just so many things going on, they get worn out,” Alpern says. When companies try to do too much too fast, employees often wait to see which initiative has the most staying power before investing the energy to alter their behaviors, he says.

State of Fatigue

About 65 percent of executives, managers and employees have experienced some form of change fatigue, according to a 2013 survey of 2,200 individuals by the Katzenbach Center. And the problem appears to be growing. The percentage of people who said their organization had reached a point of “change saturation” grew from 59 percent in 2007 to 77 percent in 2013, according to a benchmark study of 822 change leaders conducted by Prosci in Loveland, Colo.

The problem is that business leaders often have a “more is better” mindset when it comes to adopting new ideas and procedures.

“They don’t zoom out and look at all the changes going on,” says Scott McAllister, vice president of business development at Prosci. “They also don’t consider how each change affects different departments.”

Change fatigue can result in higher rates of employee absenteeism, lower engagement and ultimately higher turnover as top performers get frustrated and leave, McAllister says.

Making It Stick

To address the problem, business leaders must first accept that organizations have a limited capacity for change. Then, they need to set priorities. But that can be harder than it sounds.

“It’s easy to start changes. It’s harder to unplug changes once they’re in motion,” McAllister says. “If [leaders] have the discipline to pull the plug on those that have lost momentum or lost sponsorship or are no longer aligned with the business strategy, I think we’ve got a much better chance to address saturation.”

Top Obstacles to Change:

  • Ineffective change management sponsorship.
  • Resistance to change from employees.
  • Insufficient change management resources.
  • Division between project management and change management.
  • Middle-management resistance.

Source: Prosci.

Next, leaders should develop a plan for introducing new change initiatives over time as the capacity for change increases.

“It’s about becoming more strategic with not only what we introduce, but when and how we introduce it and to which audiences,” McAllister says.

While numerous studies show that active and visible support from top executives is key to a change initiative’s success, problems often crop up when lower-level employees are excluded from developing and executing the change plan, Alpern says.

“If you’re pushing change on people and not allowing them to be part of the change effort, you’re going to get resistance,” he says.

Change efforts are also more likely to fail if leaders ignore the role that an organization’s culture can play in whether new initiatives are accepted by the rank and file, he says. Tap into your culture’s strengths that are aligned to the change. Help employees take pride in their work.

Explain to employees what the change means to them and to the organization. Focus on just a few key behaviors that they should change—and the odds are that this time the change will stick.

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