How leader’s communication influences employee change fatigue
— June 22nd, 2021
Are you tired of change? If you answered yes, I am not surprised. There is so much change in our lives. Change fatigue is a problem, especially for organizations.
I define change fatigue as passive resignation. It’s passive because when we are experiencing change fatigue, we may not have physically left the organization, but we have departed emotionally, mentally, and cognitively.
To what degree we have departed will depend on the level of fatigue.
Change fatigue is more detrimental to your organization than what many leaders call “resistance to change.”
Why? Because the people leaders identify as resistant are usually the ones who are working to keep things as they are. Employees with change fatigue have neither the energy to protect the current state nor the interest to move through the change process.
Change fatigue left unchecked leads to employee burnout and an inability for your organization to sustain the changes it needs to make.
How do you as a leader communicate to prevent change fatigue? The first step is recognizing the purpose of communication during change.
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The Purpose of Communication During Change
When I ask leaders why they communicate during change, their answers reflect two broad themes:
- To give their employees information about what’s happening, what to expect, and what to do.
- To reduce their employees’ anxiety and get buy-in.
Keeping people informed and reducing anxiety is essential, but it shouldn’t be your primary purpose for communicating during change.
Your primary goal for communicating during change is to help people navigate through their change process.
When you focus your communication on helping people navigate their change process, you give information and reduce anxiety by default.
Fatigue is Inevitable Without a Big Picture
One of the major causes of change fatigue is failing to recognize that your organization is an interconnected open system.
The result is change initiatives are launched, led, and managed as individual and often siloed projects. But your organization is not a collection of isolated parts.
Thus, any change, regardless of how small, will affect other areas of the organization.
I recall one exasperated middle manager who described the herculean efforts her team had made in keeping up with her organization’s changes. To her, it seemed like every day, the executive announced another change initiative. It felt like change for the sake of change. She and her team were exhausted.
Communicating individual change initiatives without understanding the integrated whole is like asking your employees to complete a puzzle when they only have the pieces and not the picture on the box.
Humans are hard-wired for consistency and predictability. Our brain is constantly and unconsciously assessing our environment and looking for higher-order structures and patterns to help us navigate through the world.
The ability to see how the patterns and structures fit together reduces stress and the energy required to respond to the situation. When we can’t see a pattern or the pattern is unexpected, the uncertainty automatically triggers our stress response.
That’s why I advocate that organizations experiencing several simultaneous change initiatives create a change map. A change map shows how an organization’s multiple change initiatives are interconnected.
It’s a way of communicating change such that people see the pattern and understand the interconnections, which reduces fatigue.
Create a Language of Readiness
Seeing the patterns is only possible through our language, which frames what we think about and how we think. We use language to organize our thinking, which causes us to pay attention or remember things differently*.
Language is so powerful that a single word can change our perception and action. For example, we have one perception and emotion when we hear; he broke the vase and a different perception when we hear the vase broke.
The words and language leaders use when communicating change influences change fatigue.
Most leaders believe people resist change. This belief gets reflected in the language they use to describe and interpret people’s responses to change. This in turn shapes their perception and defines their action. But people don’t resist change. If they did change would be rare and it’s not.
That’s why I ask leaders to eliminate resistance to change from their vocabulary. Instead, I coach them on the readiness mindset.
Then I show them how to use a vocabulary grounded in readiness to change the conversations and perceptions about change.
When you change your language, you change your thinking which changes your actions.
Communication is an Interactive Process
Communication, especially in organizations, has become synonymous with giving information. And because leaders believe giving information is communicating, there is an over-reliance on passive methods of sharing information.
For example, you send an email, give a presentation, or host a town hall.
But that’s not communication. Communication is an interactive process. You haven’t communicated until the information is received and another person or group interprets the meaning of the information.
You only know what you communicated after receipt and interpretation have occurred.
There are times when just giving information is appropriate, necessary, and helpful. But that’s rarely the case during change.
During change, especially when there are multiple and simultaneous changes occurring in your organization, you need conversation. Conversation is one of the most powerful (yet undervalued, and underused) tools in a leader’s toolkit.
Conversations are needed at every level of the organization. Change, especially complex organizational change, requires purposeful conversations between leaders and employees**.
Change Fatigue is Preventable
Today organizations don’t have the luxury of integrating one change at a time. Yet constantly bombarding your employees with change initiatives only leads to change fatigue.
With active communication and the willingness to take specific actions, you can enable multiple changes without change fatigue. Organizations that can do that have a competitive advantage.
*Proffitt, D., & Baer, D. (2020). Perception: How our Bodies Shape Our Mind
** Ford, J., & Ford, L. (1995). The role of conversation in producing intentional change in organizations. Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 541-570.