3 Tips to Help Small Business Leaders Combat Change Fatigue

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“How much change can my employees handle before they experience change fatigue, or worse—burnout?”

It’s an important question, but one that few leaders think to ask before launching transformational change efforts. This can contribute to a low probability of success:

Up to 70% of organizational change efforts fail, according to research by Kotter International.

When change efforts fail, the problem isn’t change-resistant employees, but rather, ineffective change leadership.

Tips to help small business leaders avoid change fatigue

Traditional change management—a top-down approach by which leadership dictates how and when to change—has proved ineffective at achieving sustainable change. Yet it remains the predominant approach.

A more effective method is change leadership, an open source approach in which leadership and employees share a vision for the future and employees are engaged in the journey and inspired to action.

Small businesses that lean into their role as change leaders will increase the probability of change success from 34% to 58%, according to CEB, now Gartner.

This approach will improve employee productivity and retention, better positioning your business to achieve its strategic goals.

In this article, we offer three tips to help you transition from change management to change leadership so you can avoid change fatigue and increase the likelihood that your change efforts will be successful.

Is change fatigue really a concern for small businesses?

The primary business goal of small and midsize businesses (SMBs) headed into 2020 is growth, whether that’s growing revenue, customer base, or product lines.

To achieve growth, small businesses must lead transformational change efforts.

SMBs that undertake change initiatives without shifting their approach from change management to change leadership—especially during an effort on the scale of a business transformation—risk failure and subject their employees to change fatigue.

This compromises employee work performance and engagement and can eventually lead to turnover.

What is considered a change initiative:

Change initiative is a broad term encompassing a range of activities: changes to work processes, tools, communication protocols, cost, work environment, products and services, leadership and personnel, department reorganization, business strategy, etc.

Changes range from slight modifications to full-scale transformative business efforts.

The degree of impact is influenced by many factors: the pace of the change, the size and severity of the change, and the number of concurrent changes happening at the organization.

1. Don’t underestimate the bandwidth required for change

The latest neuroscience research shows that people have, at most, three hours of peak cognitive performance each day, according to Gartner. (Full report available to Gartner clients.)

This is when they are most productive. The entirety of that time is used for (and required to) concentrate on and perform role-specific tasks and responsibilities.

When people experience change, especially change to learned patterns and behaviors (i.e., the way they work), it cuts into that cognitive capacity.

This finding, although surprising, is supported by well-known research by McKinsey that shows about 60% of an employee’s time is spent on non-role specific tasks, such as responding to email and answering queries.

So if three hours are needed for role-specific tasks and five hours are needed for non-role-specific tasks, this means that there is no extra bandwidth for change.

 THE PROBLEM:  Most small business leaders layer change efforts on top of “business as usual” responsibilities, expecting employees to work at their regular pace while also learning new procedures.

This results in change fatigue, leading to stress, degraded work performance, and increased errors.

“Dealing with change consumes the already finite bandwidth people have available to devote to their work… This load is finite, and when the limit is reached, the result is change fatigue.”

Elise Olding, research VP at Gartner

(Source—Full report available to Gartner clients)

 THE SOLUTION:  Aggressive prioritization.

Recognize the bandwidth required for change and offload work from your employees to account for it, rather than layer change activities on top of day-to-day tasks.

Also, don’t assume that the change effort you’re leading is the only change employees are experiencing.

Ask yourself, “What can we de-prioritize? What can we take off people’s plates so they’ll have more bandwidth to take on this change?”

It takes, on average, 66 days for people to instill a new habit. That’s two to three months before you should expect employees to be up to speed with new procedures and have incorporated them into their work patterns.

An initial dip in productivity at the beginning of a change effort will pay dividends in the long run if employees successfully adopt and embrace the new approach.

2. Remember that communication involves ‘listening,’ not just ‘telling’

Just 13% of employees believe the leadership of their organization communicates effectively with the rest of the organization, according to Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace report.

Effective communication creates understanding. Ineffective communication creates resistance.

If employees don’t know why they’re changing or where the change will lead them, or they don’t have realistic expectations for what the journey will entail, they aren’t going to get on board.

 THE PROBLEM:  Many small business leaders dictate how and when employees should change, viewing communication as a one-way, one-time event. They forget that a critical component of communication involves listening, not just telling.

This can damage morale and decrease employee motivation and engagement. And when employees aren’t engaged at work, they are less productive.

 THE SOLUTION:  Careful messaging.

Take time to address why the change is happening, what employees can expect in their day-to-day, how their priorities might shift, and any actions they can take to prepare.

Share this message multiple times and in various ways. Introduce it at a town hall, send a follow-up email, post on your internal news channel/communication tool, review it in a team meeting, or set up an interactive Q&A.

Then, check for understanding. Use peer advocates, maximize middle managers, and seek out informal feedback through surveys, games, or a questionnaire. Use open field responses and make sure that employees can answer the following questions:

  • What is the vision?
  • Why are we doing this?
  • What is the timeline?
  • How will this affect me?
  • How can I get ready?

Then, build commitment. Analyze the results, respond to feedback, and, when possible, incorporate employee feedback into the plan.

For example, “We received input from John in accounting that made us realize we have a gap in our rollout plan. We’ve modified the plan and adjusted the timeline accordingly.”

Gartner calls this process the “share, listen, adapt” communication style. (Full report available to Gartner clients.)

After completing the three phases, Gartner recommends repeating the process to increase the chance of successful adoption. Any adaptations to the plan are conveyed in the next “share” phase. Each iteration through the cycle will serve to inspire and engage employees to participate.

Effective communication involves sharing, listening, and adapting

Effective Communication Involves Sharing, Listening, and Adapting (not just telling!)

(Source—Full report available to Gartner clients)

3. Recognize that change won’t happen at the same speed for everyone

The ability to change and adapt to shifting market conditions is essential to the survival of small businesses. Interestingly, most employees get this, and what’s more, are willing to adapt to support organizational changes.

According to research by CEB, now Gartner, 74% of employees support change efforts. And 64% have the majority of skills required to effectively engage in change.

And yet, despite possessing the necessary capabilities and willingness to change, only about a quarter of employees say they are effective at following through on that initiative and changing how they work.

 THE PROBLEM:  Leadership often focuses on the early stages of a change initiative (when the change is being discussed, prepared for, and rolled out to the organization), rather than in supporting and executing the later stages.

This results in most of their time and energy being spent trying to get reluctant employees on board with the initiative, at the expense of supporting and championing early adopters.

 THE SOLUTION:  Peer accountability.

Social learning theory tells us that people learn and adapt by observing others. We model our own behaviors and attitudes after what we observe, and in so doing, we modify existing patterns to match those around us.

If leadership flipped where they focused their time and attention, from the resistors to the early adopters, they could leverage the adopters’ behavior and attitude to get more employees on board with the change.

Then, sustain that momentum by offering continued support and peer accountability. This is where peer advocates and middle management can be a resource.

If you commit a goal to someone else, the probability of you completing that goal is 65%. And, if you create recurring check-ins with that person to monitor and report progress toward your goal, the probability of achieving your goal increases to 95%.

Consider using collaboration tools to schedule recurring check-ins, gather feedback on the change initiative, and track progress toward goals.

Scheduling automatic check-ins with users in Basecamp

Scheduling automatic check-ins in Basecamp (Source)

Additional resources for change leaders

The tips we’ve outlined here can help you transition from change managers to change leaders:

  • When preparing to undergo a change, don’t underestimate the bandwidth required. Aggressively prioritize change requirements with day-to-day responsibilities so employees don’t become overloaded.
  • When communicating the change to employees, remember that effective communication involves “listening” not just “telling.” Practice the “share, listen, adapt” communication style and iterate for change success.
  • When supporting employees through the change, recognize that change won’t happen at the same time or speed for everyone. Leverage early adopters to get others on board with changes.

This transition from change management to change leadership is part of our “process with a purpose” strategic roadmap. You can learn more about improving employee effectiveness through “process with a purpose,” in our research series (see part one and part two).

We’ll continue to explore our process with a purpose roadmap in our upcoming research, so be sure to follow our PM blog!

Note: The information contained in this article has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. The applications selected are examples to show a feature in context, and are not intended as endorsements or recommendations.

Looking for Project Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Project Management software solutions.

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About the Author

Eileen O'Loughlin

Eileen O’Loughlin is a Senior Project Management Analyst for Capterra. Her research helps small businesses leverage the latest technology and trends to solve key business challenges and achieve strategic goals. Her work has been cited in various publications, including CIO.com, ProjectManagement.com, ProjectsAtWork and DevOps Digest.


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