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The present business climate is punctuated by constant change, from technological advancements to hybrid working to evolving customer demands and even global pandemics. While change can be beneficial for businesses, it can also lead to significant stress and fatigue for employees who are tasked with adapting to these transitions. This phenomenon is known as change fatigue, and it is having a significant impact on the wellbeing and productivity of workers.
The transformation deficit
As a recent article in Harvard Business Review reported: ‘In 2022, the average employee experienced 10 planned enterprise changes — such as a restructure to achieve efficiencies, a culture transformation to unlock new ways of working, or the replacement of a legacy tech system — up from two in 2016, according to Gartner research.’
While transformation might remain at the forefront of business, a Gartner survey cited in the same report, has revealed that employees’ willingness to support enterprise change collapsed to just 43 per cent in 2022, compared to 74 per cent in 2016.
Its authors call the gap between the required change effort and employee change willingness the “transformation deficit.” They explain that “unless functional leaders steer swiftly and expertly, the transformation deficit will stymie organizations’ ambitions and undermine the employee experience, fueling decreased engagement and increased attrition.”
What causes change fatigue?
One of the main causes of change fatigue is the pace of transformation with organisations often implementing change at a rapid pace to keep up with the competition or adapt to new market conditions. However, this can lead to employees feeling like they are constantly on the edge, waiting for the next change to happen. This can result in a sense of uncertainty and a lack of control, which can further exacerbate stress and anxiety levels.
Another contributing factor to this phenomenon is the lack of support provided to employees during these transitions. Employers may assume that their workers will simply adapt to new processes or structures without any issues, but this is often not the case.
Teamwork for change – why co-piloting is the way to go
Change fatigue is driving attrition. And a hierarchical style of leadership and management is not doing anything to improve the situation.
There is a critical question to be asked of our own leadership here which is as leaders or managers, do we represent the group of people who make up our team or teams? Do we understand it? Are we helping create a sense of shared identity?
Understanding the importance of self-identity is a component part many leaders are missing in their skillset when it comes to successful change management.
A lot of what makes a person’s identity comes from their work alongside the connections they have to other people in that workplace and in their team. From that identity also comes agency, purpose and meaning. If that identity is exposed to the prospect of change it can feel threatening or scary. This can have profound implications for how people react to change when they have to encounter it head on such as through an organisational restructure, merger or acquisition.
As leaders, we must also understand that leadership is actually a collective or group process. We lead through our people; it is not about having power over them, but about power through them and mobilising them to make the change happen effectively.
Before any change initiatives begin, leaders and managers should start by mapping out the groups who are involved and think about how their identities will be affected. Appreciating what change will mean for them and figuring out how to help them make the transition will help advance the whole organisation. Do this by involving employees in the whole process so they can co-create change decisions and as active participants, better understand what it means for them to make the change happen successfully.
Leadership models need to adapt
Models of leading and managing others need to move from I to We.
You will have heard of identity leadership, the humanistic-leader, humane leadership, the conscious leader and no doubt many others. In essence, these are all terms for what a coaching approach of leading others is. The best kept secret though is that a coaching approach can also be ultra effective when it comes to improving the success rate of change management initiatives.
A human-centric form of leadership, it is defined by leading with authenticity, empathy and adaptivity. These leadership qualities are not just nice to have but are being demanded by today’s employees.
A coaching style embodies all these traits along with sharper self-awareness, and involves deeper skills of active listening, effective questioning, feedback and motivational support. These are all attributes that serve others well in helping build confidence, engagement, resilience and the space for thinking and are especially useful when it comes to creating the right conditions to stop change fatigue from establishing itself.
Ultimately you cannot do leadership or management if there is no We to lead. It is a failure of leadership if you are not prepared to go the extra mile and try to understand your people and what they are feeling, doing and thinking. If you are prepared to get inside their heads, then the proof will be in the followership you earn and the collaborative spirit your people adopt in times of upheaval and uncertainty.
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