Tired pug laying flat on a wooden bench

Change Management When Employees Are Exhausted by Change

November 08, 2022 Digital Workplace
Annette Corbett
By Annette Corbett

According to Wordhippo, the antonym for the word “change” can be defined as to “endure,” “stagnate” or “persist.”  Essentially, a predictable, static state in which the world in general, as well as processes, technology and ways of working, simply prevail.

Unless you live in present day 2022, when change looks a whole lot like its antonym.

Change no longer carries an air of mystique, nor does it wear the guise of excitement, progression or evolution. It’s the barometer of everyday life, something that happens while everyone is trying to get on with the business of living, if only things would just stand still for a moment.

Putting politics, climate and the cost of living aside, let’s consider what this means for the workplace. The constant swirl of change is proving to be utterly exhausting.

People Are Too Tired for Change

In an article for Business Partner Magazine, Madara Kalm writes, "If businesses fail to keep up with constantly-moving targets, they lag behind, become stale and, ultimately, fail."

In which case surely employees would welcome the concept of change?

Not according to Atlassian Talent Management Lead Sarah Antliff, who writes that, "Under normal circumstances, we can rely on our 'surge capacity' to deal with sudden, short-term changes. The ongoing pandemic has depleted these usual reserves." And that’s before we get started on all that other silly life stuff we put aside earlier (but which keeps resurfacing in our social feeds like a nightmare game of whack-a-mole).

So, while resistance to change is not exactly an unexpected side-effect of transformation initiatives, the role of line management cannot be overstated (and yet remains somewhat off the agenda). The impact of change can affect many people in the same way, but is by no means entirely linear, with personal circumstances and perspectives playing a key role.

Related Article: Communicating Change: Overcoming Resistance Through Empathy

Bias

Managers should be aware of potential biases at play. The Pink Elephant Blog (yes, we are all about the hippos and elephants in this article) discusses confirmation and status quo biases, which may present during change initiatives. Solutions are rooted in solid communication techniques, which reinforce the importance of engaging (and equipping) managers for these challenges, early on.

Competing Commitments

Harvard Business Review suggests that "The Real Reason People Won’t Change" is due to competing commitments, which may not mean what you think it does. Organizational psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey developed the concept, which they describe as "immunity to change,” rather than resistance.  Immunity to change arises from (unacknowledged) psychological blockers (or imagined outcomes), which create change paralysis until the underlying issue is addressed.

Again, the role of the line manager is a critical component in overcoming these change conundrums, as is the ability to communicate openly and with empathy.

Related Article: Why Change Needs to Be Managed in the Digital Workplace

A Human-Centered Approach to Change Management

In its 2020 report, Combating COVID-19 With an Agile Change Management Approach, Deloitte offered valuable perspective on the impact the pandemic had on employees. Reworking the Kubler-Ross change curve to illustrate five stages of transition, from Denial through to Commitment (not to mention the arduous descent and scale through the Valley of Despair), the report takes an unusually human-centered approach.

Kubler-Ross change curve

Denial, Frustration and Depression are human emotions rarely discussed in the workplace, but only by navigating these can you expect employees to arrive at the ”social norm” of Acceptance and Commitment.

And color me cynical, but might it be the distinct lack of focus on those three, highly emotive elements of Deloitte’s carefully plotted path to metamorphosis which resulted in the kind of halfway house we are seeing across organizations now? How might these themes look when reimagined for the post-pandemic world? Let’s see ....

Deloitte’s carefully plotted path to metamorphosis

As with the Deloitte change curve, it's imperative to recognize the personal impact. But the outcomes under Acceptance and Commitment in this model don’t presuppose that awareness of policies and access to collaborative technology will result in the desired conclusion. Here, there must be a safe space to discuss concerns with a line manager. Access to communities of practice can debunk the impression of everyone coping seamlessly with change, and provide an open forum on daily challenges, what is and isn’t working well, and how it can be addressed as a collective effort.

I believe communities are critical for the success of change initiatives.

Related Article: Why Communities Are the Organizational Model of the Future

Why Failure Is the Best Teacher

'Lessons learned' are the gold of project documentation. They document what didn’t go well, where mistakes and assumptions were made, stakeholders overlooked. Essentially, information that most people aren’t privy to when the ribbon is cut on that transformation project. We persist in socializing stories of conventional brilliance, rather than where someone might have pivoted spectacularly to bring about a successful outcome to what would otherwise have been a complete turkey.

And wouldn’t we be less tired of change if we were allowed to vocalize concerns in a setting where active listening was practiced, support was provided in the form of regular check-ins with our line managers and the psychological safety to share those niggling doubts that we aren’t encouraged to vocalize?

Creating a positive team climate can pay dividends during a time of disruption, according to McKinsey. Research found that a positive team climate has a stronger effect on psychological safety in teams that experienced a greater degree of change in working remotely, than in those that experienced less change during the pandemic.

So, when we talk transformation (because let's face it, change is just the norm now) let's include line management, psychological safety and the importance of celebrating our failures as successes in the discussion.

About the Author

I have delivered knowledge related content and internal communications (often based on transformation initiatives) applying content design principles — in particular, GDS — and UX writing to provide a relevant, informed, and positive user experience for external and internal audiences. My background includes product management and I'm a keen advocate of “clean digital” practices — to minimize our carbon footprint and promote sustainability — across intranet and content channels.

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