Humanising change and preventing change fatigue

Well, if you are struggling with change fatigue, you’re definitely not alone: managing change is the challenge that is top of managers’ workload according to Roffey Park’s 2014 Management Agenda research, and it is high on the list with HR and anticipated to remain there in five years’ time. Much of the change talked about was cultural transformation focused on performance management and over one-third of respondents reported that this type of project hadn’t been successful.

So what can you do to lead successful change in organisations?

Firstly, let’s start with the term ‘change fatigue’. A quick search through a dictionary reveals that medically, ‘Fatigue is physical and/or mental exhaustion that can be triggered by stress, medication, overwork, or mental and physical illness or disease.’ Change practitioners might define change fatigue as ‘passive resignation’, or tiredness, cynicism and disengagement.

It’s a term that I’ve heard in my time as both an employee and independent change consultant in the past 20 odd years, but the meaning you make around change fatigue depends largely on where you stand in relation to the particular change.

A while ago, I wrote an article that names five things that bug me about change, and, in hindsight, I might be tempted to add ‘change fatigue’ as number six. My issue with much of the language around organisational change is that it can tip over into de-humanising both the process and the impact on people.

I notice that it is a term that is used almost exclusively by those running change programmes or leaders who are either directly or indirectly responsible. By way of an example, I ran a programme a few years ago which involved taking the participants through a number of the main change models. When presented with Kotter, two highly experienced NHS staff laughed and said “this is the language of Management and bares no relation to our experience.”

What is revealed here is the mis-match not only between the strategic intention of change leaders and what people ‘closer to the coal face’ see, a clash in language, but more significantly the impact of the motivation of staff and how they feel.

So what does this mean for leaders in organisations grappling with change?

1. Ditch ‘change fatigue’

Think about what tends to work for you when you are under the cosh, and how might you signal to others that you have some semblance of understanding of what they are going through, even if you are not sharing their pain.

2. Empathise don’t patronise

There is nothing more frustrating that being spoken at or down to by a leader who feigns sincerity or is so embarrassed by the fact that they know they have put you and everyone else through the wringer, yet somehow doesn’t have a mark on them to show it. The antidote to this is simple: brutal honesty. “No, I am not going through what you are, and I can see/hear/feel that it is really frustrating/maddening/exhausting. What I can/cannot do/say is….. and this means…”.

3. Start simple, don’t promise what you cannot deliver

Brutal honesty applies again here, but simply be straight with people around what you can and cannot do. You’ll be surprised at how well received it will be and will do a lot to encourage the buy-in and engagement to make your change happen.

4. Be useful not helpful

It is a profoundly human quality to wish to help others. And I wonder whether in this context that is as important as being useful? Helpful talks to their powerlessness relative to the challenge they face, usefulness to the resources they have and/or need that will support them to get where they need to be. There is something for me about organisations taking responsibility for what they are and are not willing to do that emerges from the difference between the two.

5. Intention

Last but not least, all of the above is underpinned by your intention. It may be obvious, and yet I think a great deal of what I have written about above – the mismatch between the rhetoric of change and what people need and want, where to intervene and where not – unfolds through the interplay between intention and what is experienced by the people around you.

Change in organisations is rarely ever neat and tidy and, whilst we all have moments where we are weary and cynical, it needs to remain messy in order to deliver what is needed to move organisations forward.