“Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Crime and Punishment”
As it stands, the leaders of two of the most stable governments in the world, the United States and the United Kingdom, face uncertainty. One faces an impeachment inquiry while the other is urged to consider quitting. Brexit, tariffs, unrest in Hong Kong, climate change and economic uncertainty are on top of the general call for business change just to keep ahead of competition.
We seem to be in a cycle of constant change and there doesn’t seem to be much that is certain anymore. What toll is all this having on the people in our organization? It turns out that the collective of all this is having a big impact.
On the topic of “change fatigue,” Steve Shapiro, a colleague in Gartner’s Strategy Leadership practice, wrote:
“In the 1960s, two psychologists, Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe, developed a scale to measure the amount of (happy and unhappy) stress of various life events over the course of a year and how likely a significant health breakdown was to occur as a result. A major business readjustment ranked just below having a baby and just above the death of a close friend. Experiencing a change in responsibilities at work scored on par with in-law troubles. The point of the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory, though, was that multiple changes add up to a larger burden. Their findings don’t bode well for the 67% of employees who experienced a ‘career moment’ (a shift in responsibilities or a big reorganization) in the last six months, or for the 62% of employees that expect to undergo one in the next six months.”
Stress costs U.S. employers alone more than US$300 billion each year due to absenteeism, reduced productivity and turnover. In fact, a Gartner study highlighted stress management as the second highest area where employees wanted support from their employers, right behind a sense of purpose.
Avoiding change is impossible. As Jack Welch once said, “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.” So, if change both inside and outside the organization is inevitable, our task as leaders is to focus on limiting the negative impact of the change we cause on the people we lead.
Many of us have encountered feelings of change fatigue when hit with multiple changes to our role or organization in a short amount of time. But if allowed to persist, some of the consequences can be:
- • Feelings of being overwhelmed and fear of workplace instability
- • An increase in cynicism and pessimism
- • A decrease in energy
- • A decrease in commitment to the organization
- • Greater skepticism about the intentions of leadership
It turns out that how we communicate change within our organizations can make a huge difference. Research conducted by Gartner in 2016 showed that choosing the wrong communication method can exacerbate change fatigue. In fact, the common top-down approach of communicating change often elicits responses of anger and/or anxiousness. Certainly not the feelings we want when trying to lead the organization forward. Instead, Gartner’s corporate leadership practice identified an “open source” approach to change communication.
How is “open source” different? It uses the workforce to plan and implement change. In open source communication, the change strategy is co-created. There is employee ownership of change implementation planning, with communication focusing on talking instead of telling. Open source communication supports peer-to-peer interactions, openly addresses any negative emotions and builds two-way conversations.
In an environment where there seems to be less and less under our control, finding new ways to empower employees and give them some control over change can only help.
Chief of Research,
Gartner Supply Chain