The anxious tenor of recent conversations among the leaders and staff at a large, global technology company is not unusual. Like many organizations, this one is confronting a series of seemingly relentless market shifts that are driving the need for an ever increasing number of change initiatives — more than management could have imagined a year ago. Not surprisingly, the anxiety at all levels of the company is palpable.
This organization — and the worry that pervades it — is hardly an outlier. Changing business environments have become the order of the day, and many organizations are launching large numbers of simultaneous or serial change efforts in the quest to remain competitive. Employees — the people who have to implement the change — are struggling to cope with it all, and many are burning out.
Some call it change fatigue. But Harlow Cohen, professor of organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management, thinks of it differently. “What I gravitate more toward is the notion that there’s less time to do more work with fewer resources than ever before,” he says. “So people have come to feel more protective of their time — a trend that has been unfolding for well over 15 years. Organizations are compressing or downsizing and expecting greater productivity.”
There was a time when companies could alleviate these pressures by throttling back on change, slowing its pace. That isn’t a realistic option today. To thrive, organizations have no choice but to change at the speed market forces demand. That doesn’t mean that change fatigue is inevitable, however. To steer clear of it, company leaders need to approach change in ways that engage and energize employees.
Far too often, in spite of a growing clamor for change management, change initiatives still focus sharply on project management because that plays to the strong project management capabilities many organizations have developed. However, a project-management focus overlooks the human element. Change teams often excel at scoping projects, developing plans and budgeting resources, which are important and necessary. But if equal attention is not paid to how the project will affect the employees’ lives and if that element is not addressed effectively, people will be left to stew in states of confusion and fear.
This is not “soft stuff.” These are real barriers that translate into hard costs. A senior executive of a Fortune 500 energy company realized the importance of the human dimension of change as she prepared to roll out a bevy of initiatives needed to save $50 million annually in expenses. Her 2,000- person division already was in the throes of significant organizational change, and she was concerned about the toll on her employees and the risks to the new initiatives. In preparing to roll out the changes, she had all managers trained in change management. In addition to learning how to lead change, the managers were asked to provide input on how best to communicate the changes to their employees. Involving managers made them feel more invested in the initiatives. But the effort didn’t stop there. The company supported all employees by training them on how to cope with change on both a professional and personal level. Tackling the human dimension made the difference. The division realized 100 percent of its goals, and employee engagement scores increased in the process.
When it comes to change, the human factor is what separates success from failure. Consider this typical scenario. When confronted with the need for yet another process change imposed by a business unit leader, a small group of subject-matter experts gathers in a conference room to scope out the details. They emerge, armed with spreadsheets and workflows, issuing calls to action. To the staff, the directive seems to come out of the blue and elicits sighs of resignation. However, ideas that seemed brilliant in the boardroom can seem downright illogical, inconsistent and unworkable in the field. They can fall completely flat because they were too focused on process, or infrastructure, or other low-value work. Change becomes something that is inflicted on employees vs. something they own and advocate for.
There’s a better way to get the right answer and reduce the level of fatigue: Ease up on the controls and include employees in developing solutions. Asking the people who will be affected by the change to help define its end state, based on a clearly articulated and supported business goal, usually leads to a better solution. It also builds trust and resilience, making the next change easier. Employees become invested in initiatives they help design. That goes a long way toward turning change fatigue into change embraced with vigor.
Employees are eager for opportunities to flex their creative muscles and contribute their ideas. And their views from the front lines and in the trenches are often quite astute. If your company still operates in old-fashioned hierarchical ways, try a different approach the next time you try to solve a problem. Hand the challenge over to the people who live with the problem every day and who would be affected by attempts to fix it. Tell them what needs to be addressed, the business problem that needs to be solved and the case for change, including the downsides of inaction. Then let them figure out “the how.”
As Cohen points out — you know you’re on the right track when your employees’ response to change is, “It’s about time we did this!”
There is no inherent reason why change should be painful or the process should cause fatigue. But most people see it that way because the human side of the equation hasn’t been effectively addressed. People want to work for companies that thrive; their jobs and livelihoods depend upon it. Change can and should be a positive force that employees see as securing their future. However, to imbue change with the energy and commitment that it needs to succeed, leaders should trust the smart people they hired to help show them the way.