3 Tips to Help Business Leaders Combat Change Fatigue

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

Header illustration showing a woman presenting a board with bullet points on it, and a person icon with steam coming from his head

Up to 70% of organizational change efforts fail, according to research by Kotter International. And when change efforts fail, the problem isn’t change-resistant employees, but ineffective change management.

Often, business leaders don’t account for the various changes occurring simultaneously within their organization and incorrectly assume their change effort is the only event impacting employees.

In the face of multiple changes, employees can quickly become overwhelmed. This creates change fatigue, resulting in a loss of productivity, increased errors, burnout, and even turnover.

In this article, we offer three tips to help you combat change fatigue and increase the likelihood that your change efforts will succeed.

We’ve also summarized these tips in a downloadable infographic here. Don’t forget to take a copy with you!

What is a change initiative?

Change initiative is a broad term encompassing a range of activities, including:

  • Updating processes or protocols
  • Using a new tool
  • Implementing new leadership
  • Shifting strategy (either at a team, department, and business level)
  • Moving facilities
  • Reorganizing departments
  • Adding new members to a team

Changes can range from slight modifications to full-scale transformative business efforts. However, the degree to which employees are impacted by change efforts 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.

3 tips for combatting change fatigue

1. Don’t underestimate the bandwidth required for change

The problem: Layering change efforts on top of “business as usual” responsibilities and 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.

Research shows that people have, at most, three hours of peak cognitive performance each day. This is when they are most productive, concentrating on and performing 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.

“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.

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”

The problem: Dictating how and when employees should change and viewing communication as a one-way, one-time event.

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

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 if they don’t have realistic expectations for what the journey will entail, they aren’t going to get on board.

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. Repeat the process throughout the change initiative to increase the chance of successful adoption (full report available to Gartner clients).

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

The problem: Focusing more attention on planning a change initiative rather than supporting employees during execution.

This leads to spending most of your time and energy trying to get reluctant employees on board, at the expense of championing early adopters.

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 solution: Peer accountability.

Flip where you’re focusing your time and attention, from the resistors to the early adopters, and leverage the adopters’ behavior and attitude to get more employees on board with the change.

Then, sustain that momentum through peer accountability, which increases the probability of completing a goal by up to 95%. This is where peer advocates and middle management can be a resource.

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

Next steps: Download our ‘3 Tips to Combat Change Fatigue’ infographic

The tips we’ve outlined here can help you avoid common pitfalls that lead to failed change initiatives.

Download a copy so you have it handy for your next change effort!

To stay up-to-date on the latest industry news and trends, be sure to follow our PM blog!

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

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About the Author

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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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