With Martin G. Moore

Episode #119

Change Fatigue: Is it a thing?

A lot of leaders say that their organisation is suffering from “change fatigue”. Although there are no doubt many impacts from the seemingly endless list of change initiatives that organisations roll out, is change fatigue really a thing?

Maybe it’s simply an inevitable part of life in a fast-paced business environment. But the problem with using cliches like ‘change fatigue’ is that they can lead us to overlook the role that our own leadership behaviours play.

What’s the difference between change fatigue, and change resistance? Has Covid changed all of this? And what could we do differently to bring some sense and order to our change initiatives, while protecting our people from the most damaging side-effects?


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Episode #119 Change Fatigue: Is it a thing?

Hey there and welcome to Episode #119 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This week’s episode: Change Fatigue: Is it a thing? We hear a lot of pundits declaring that an organisation is experiencing change fatigue. I came across this more than once during my executive career, and I must say, I really struggled to come to terms with the expression. There are no doubt, many impacts from the seemingly endless list of change initiatives that organisations of all shapes and sizes tend to roll out. But we’re leaders, right? If we just dismiss it as an inevitable part of life in a fast paced corporate environment, we can ignore the impact that our leadership has on the people around us.

So how much of this is change fatigue and how much has actually change resistance? How do we tell the difference? And what could we do differently to bring some sense and order to our change initiatives and God forbid even create value from them? So we’ll start by trying to understand a little bit about what change fatigue actually is. I’ll then take a look at whether this is more difficult in the COVID context, with a little help from Admiral John Richardson. And I’ll finish with a few tips for getting to the root cause so that you can start to make a difference.

Organisational change happens for all sorts of reasons and it’s unavoidable. The economic environment shifts in an unexpected way. Perhaps market share of your company has declined and you need to trim your cost base accordingly. Sometimes an executive has a broad idea for restructure to shuffle the deck chairs, or maybe you have a new manager who just wants to put their stamp on things. Maybe you’ve undertaken some competitive benchmarking, and this tells you that your organisation needs to be way more efficient if it’s to compete and survive in the long-term. Or perhaps an organisational culture survey has given you some unwanted bad news that requires significant change to respond to that feedback. More often than we’d like to, a core technology system approach is end of life and needs to be replaced. Or maybe a new innovation dramatically improves efficiency, and you want to capture that by cutting staff numbers. Or maybe you’ve decided to outsource a part of your operation that has traditionally been managed in house. I’m sure you’ve all been through at least one of these types of change initiatives in the past.

When I first went to CS Energy, to be honest, it was in a lot of trouble. Everywhere I looked, starting with the balance sheet, the organisation was broken. There were a whole lot of good people with the best intent, but the culture was based upon engineering knowledge and that knowledge was power if you’ll pardon the pun. People’s self-importance, their status, their respect, and their influence was founded upon their expert power. Now, if you haven’t listened to Episode 5 of the podcast, Using Power Wisely, that’s really good just to give you a run across the types of power that we can use. But this was not a learning organisation and it was going to have to change radically just to survive. Yet, despite what I perceive to be a systemic lack of change and progress, everywhere I went I would hear lower level leaders tell me that the people were change fatigued. Now, how is this possible? How can you be change fatigued when clearly nothing has changed for a really long time? Now I concluded that I probably just didn’t understand what change fatigue was, so of course, I consulted the most reliable website in the world, Wikipedia. Now this turned out to be a pretty good move, as I found a couple of old articles from Forbes Magazine, by a guy named Ken Poolman.

Now according to Wikipedia, change fatigue is a sense of apathy or passive resignation to organisational change, and it’s driven by change that is unfocused, uninspired and unsuccessful. So in other words, irrational change. Have you ever heard a boss described as a “sandy beach boss?” What it means is that the last person to walk on it leaves the biggest impression. Now these types of leaders are really prone to trying to implement the latest blog they’ve read or the latest management technique that they hear about at networking drinks. I know some leaders whose teams dread what they’re going to be given to work on in the morning. “I was reading that green is the most soothing colour. And so we’re going to paint all the computers green, and this will make you all much calmer and happier”. Like I said, irrational change.

Ken Pullman made some interesting observations. 70% of transformation efforts actually fail. In many organisations, multiple change initiatives keep coming despite an already fully resourced work programme. And one of my favourite tools, the burning platform, can have the unintended consequence of spreading panic, rather than driving urgency towards well-considered actions. Okay, so I guess that explained a lot. But was the apathy and passive resignation that I was seeing in the organisations I was leading, driven by fatigue or by something else? Is this change fatigue cliche really driven by continual change? Now I’d like to get to the root cause of anything, so when a clearly observable set of behaviours exist, I like to know what the drivers are and I try not to just succumb to throw away lines. So I look at the other possibilities because what we commonly call change fatigue may just be symptomatic of other problems.

My first question was, is this change fatigue, or just change resistance? Now people generally don’t like uncertainty and you can’t have change without at least some uncertainty. So resistance to any change is always going to be there in the majority of your people. If you have a few people who are change tolerant, who’ll help you to drive improvement, you’re doing pretty well. This will likely be no more than 5 to 10% of your team, in the average organisation. The majority will think this will never work. And many will even say quietly to each other, “this will never work”. And some will go so far as to actively oppose the change by saying, really loudly, “This is never going to work”. But my point is, resistance is different to fatigue. And then there’s poor leadership, let me count the ways. Lack of detailed planning, being unrealistic about what constitutes adequate resourcing, not managing the work programme you actually have, a lack of focus on the right things, not listening to feedback from your people, failure to communicate what’s important and why, the list goes on and on and on. And then you have a situation where the leadership chain actually breaks down. So weak leaders in middle management may be reluctant to push back on the avalanche of work that flows from above. So they take it on, they say, “sure, we can do that” while knowing that their team has no chance of achieving it. But apparently, that’s easier than saying no and appearing negative to your boss.

These same leaders are the ones who can’t adequately explain what’s important to their team when they’re questioned on it. So they fall back on the, just do it line. So my experience is there are many underlying causes for people feeling overwhelmed by change that have very little to do with fatigue. But if we use this cliche as an explanation, it seems to excuse us from the poor leadership behaviours that drive the problem and that absolves us from having to do anything to change the state of play. Have you ever heard a leader say “Yes, I know, but there’s nothing I can do about it”.

One question I was interested in was, is change fatigue worse in COVID? And I stumbled upon an article from McKinsey in which they interviewed Admiral John Richardson about what had changed during COVID. It’s a great read. And he spoke about why many organisations are struggling to adapt to the COVID context and had some ideas for how to deal with these better. The first problem is that we often fail to recognise poor assumptions. And most people’s early assumptions around the COVID pandemic was that it would blow over, probably much faster than it actually has. To deal with this changes have had to be made frequently and rapidly. I’d probably describe it as people having become disoriented with this change rather than fatigued by it. Second thing is many people have failed to accept the circumstances in their core being, and they’re struggling to make sense of their reality.

So Richardson talks about having a ‘stoic acceptance’ of the current state. And this is very similar to an episode.I did a few weeks ago, Episode 107 on Resilience, Faith and Optimism, so it’s definitely worth a listen. But without this stoic acceptance, you can get caught in the spiral of uncertainty and doubt. And once again, not a fatigue thing, but a clear driver of this phenomenon. The third thing is people sometimes try to control every decision. Now this comes back to discomfort with uncertainty. And that’s going to push you to work at the wrong level if you’re not really disciplined about it. But more control has never been the answer. Learning how to become more fluid and more tolerant of ambiguity is the answer. So it’s really important to balance the load and structure the team the right way.

I think back to my days as an executive at Aurizon. And in 2011 we had major floods that ripped through our operating regions and destroyed our infrastructure, making it virtually impossible to ship coal for our customers. But the CEO didn’t panic and try to control everything. He set up a recovery task force, I was appointed as the chair, and he charged us with mapping the best way through the crisis, to a point where both the physical and the financial recovery was complete. But the CEO stayed out of our knitting and I let the experts in each area make the decisions while coordinating the inputs. Another driver is that sometimes people are let down simply by a lack of air cover. And what I mean by this is that it’s so important to protect people from the sometimes irrational musings that flow downwards from a board or executive team. Quite often, there’s simply too little scrutiny from the senior leaders who have to deal with the complexity of all the issues, and they doom their people to have to find a way through when they’re ill-equipped to do so. They push a problem that they’re paid to sort out, down to the unsuspecting people in the teams who clearly aren’t being paid to do that, and lack the organisational standing to make a difference, even if they wanted to. And the final driver, it’s often the case that people simply haven’t committed to the plan. As a leader, it’s pretty important to drive energy and alignment through your people. Without it there’ll be no sense of ownership for your teams, no matter what the plan says is going to happen on paper. So in summary, any change fatigue you thought you had pre-COVID has now just been amplified tenfold.

So how do we get through to the root cause and make a difference? There’s no doubt that many people are sceptical, wary, and fearful of any organisational change. But there are a few simple things that can make all the difference to how change is viewed in an organisation. Now because I’ve got a few pretty good tips here, I’m going to put them in a downloadable, free download you can pick up from the Your CEO mentor website, yourceomentor.com/episode119. Now the first thing is simplicity and focus. And this is the number one thing. A lot of so-called change fatigue comes from inappropriate volumes of work, none of which seems to be clearly ranked in relative terms. As a leader, you need to understand value in a profound way. What are the most critical value drivers in our organisation?

Now, if you can rank these and focus only on the ones that create the most value, it’s way less likely that you’ll end up being under resourced, to the point where everything is done poorly. I’ve seen this countless times. And sometimes, people are their own worst enemy, there’s no doubt about it. Make it really clear what the big value leavers are that you’re trying to pull and stop doing all the shit that doesn’t matter. If you can rank your initiatives in value terms, then it’s easy to rule a line under the ones that you haven’t got the resources for. But please help your people out a bit. Give them at least an even money chance of being successful. That should reduce their angst a bit. The second thing is the pivot. Now I actually felt compelled to dedicate a couple of paragraphs in my book to this emerging phenomenon.

The concept of pivoting when things change is fine. It’s an option for companies that managed to make themselves truly agile and responsive. However, the word pivot has become as cliched as the expression, change fatigue. Any radical movement in strategy or direction is now called a pivot. Now, this sounds much sexier and better controlled than the random knee-jerk responses that many of these really are. This in a way blesses the incompetence of leaders who don’t read the play, change their minds at the drop of a hat without strong rationale and strategy, and just react to external events as they happen. Don’t pivot unless you’re genuinely changing strategy. And don’t just keep reacting. Being responsive is really important, but being able to premptively plan and foresee events and trends is infinitely better for your people and the organisation as a whole. The third thing is communication.

And as I said before, most leaders don’t communicate adequately. They don’t listen well enough. They don’t take the time to explain why things are being done the way they are. They don’t connect the work programme to the purpose and the value that had been created. And they certainly don’t reinforce the key messages enough. Now, many leaders think that good communication is about sending an explanatory email to the whole team, chapter and verse. But for those of you who use that strategy, I’ve got some bad news. Very few people read your email. Of those who do, even fewer will either convey that message to others or take action as a result. And then you rely on water cooler gossip to get messages through the organisation. Don’t know about you, but I’m not convinced about the accuracy of that method. The fourth driver is the fallacy of the transformation team.

A lot of major change requires specialists change managers to run that programme. Sometimes, a whole transformation office is established. And with all my respect and love for those of you who take on these types of roles, it’s a very dangerous thing to rely on change managers, to make things work. Why? Because it’s not their job. They’re experts, who advise. People generally don’t report to a change manager. And if it’s not owned by the line management, the change won’t work. Now I know a number of CEOs who gloat about setting up big transformation offices to drive change, and don’t get me wrong, these are sometimes an essential part of the picture, but you can’t afford to derogate your accountability. The danger with change managers is that they have the word change in their job title. And this can give you a false sense of security, particularly leaders who think that they will drive change. But it’s not their job.

If it’s not owned in the line, driven in the line, and delivered in the line, it will be a failure, despite the expert support efforts of the change management team. And the final root cause I’m going to look at is trust and empowerment. Now I talk occasionally about what motivates people. And I draw on Dan Pink’s work in his book “Drive”. People are ultimately driven by three things; Autonomy, mastery, and purpose. And when these are absent, people tend to be less satisfied and perform poorly. Now these elements all impact how someone responds to change. If it’s not clear why a change initiative is being undertaken or what the expected results are, your people are going to find it pretty hard to connect to a purpose. If they don’t have at least some control over their destiny, some empowerment to make decisions and impact the outcomes, they will not find any autonomy.

And if the work programme is too difficult, either because of its inherent complexity or just the volume of work being too great for an individual’s capacity, they won’t reach any level of mastery in the changed environment. However, if you understand how to lead execution with single point accountability and empowerment, you will have a pretty good chance of getting people through the change. Now we’ve covered a lot of ground, but to wrap this all up, it’s probably true, that change fatigue actually is a thing. But, if we insist on using that cliche, we might mistakenly absolve ourselves from the obligation we have as leaders to make sure our people don’t have to go through it any more than is absolutely necessary. Behind every instance of change fatigue, there’s a series of poor decisions, irrational expectations, and a leader who lacks the courage to make a difference.


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