When organisations undertake large-scale transformation programmes, it can unsettle employees and test how much change they can bear. Hannah Wilson explores the causes of transformation fatigue and how to help employees to overcome it.

Humans are designed to adapt. It’s part of how we've survived so well as a species. Yet everyone has their own stress threshold for change, and this can differ enormously between individuals. Large-scale change programmes can be needed for several reasons – staying relevant in the market, compliance with new regulations or legislation, increasing efficiency to generate profit and revenue – but successful delivery hinges on bringing your people along with you.

So how do leaders recognise when transformation fatigue is setting in and how can you navigate it to keep morale up and support employees through the changes being implemented?

Spotting transformation fatigue

Transformation or change fatigue is the feeling of exhaustion and frustration that many employees get when there is either a perception that too much change is taking place or there are continuous transformation initiatives being undertaken by their organisation. It's often the result of employees feeling overwhelmed by the pace and scope of change that occurs over a long period of time.

You can identify it from individuals feeling exhausted all the time – often due to the raised level of cortisol they’re experiencing – which can also show as a steep decline in their drive and motivation, and general lack of engagement in their work. In serious cases, burnout and sickness absences can result.

It may also manifest as colleagues outwardly resisting changes, especially if these individuals were previously advocates of the change. They may start to voice negative opinions around the transformation and be less open to being reminded of the benefits.

What brings on change fatigue?

Transformation fatigue can result from a variety of factors:

  • Lack of communication – colleagues may feel overwhelmed or disengaged without clear communication on what is happening, why, and how it will affect them
  • No clear objectives or tangible benefits – it can be demoralising and create scepticism if improvements or benefits aren't seen or there's no clear rationale for the changes being made
  • Lack of support – without the right resources, training and coaching to help people transition, they can feel overwhelmed or unsure of how to perform their roles, which in turn can affect confidence and morale
  • Change overload – too many transformation initiatives being run concurrently or consecutively may mean staff struggle to fully adopt new ways of working before another is introduced
  • Change maturity – if an organisation lacks the maturity or skill sets to deliver change effectively, problems such as scope creep, plan delays and lack of benefits realisation can result and lead to disillusionment or colleagues not feeling part of the change journey.
  • Leadership ability – changes need to be managed effectively from the top or colleagues may lose confidence in their leaders, feel unsupported and become disengaged from the transformation
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How to overcome transformation fatigue

Thankfully, there are some methods you can adopt to overcome transformation fatigue and maintain buy-in of colleagues throughout the change journey.

1 Have effective portfolio management capability

Understand how much change is happening in your organisation at one time, where things are in the life cycle, which benefits have already been delivered and how these changes impact one another.

When you consider change at an organisational rather than departmental level, you'll be able to prioritise more effectively, ensure business cases remain relevant, and have a greater understanding of which groups and business lines are being affected at one time.

2 Consider the maturity of your business

Be honest about the maturity of your organisation and how much change you can realistically deliver, and don’t overestimate how much your people will be able to cope with at one time.

Ensure that operational risks are tracked, alongside those of the transformation initiative, so that leaders can easily understand the impacts the change is bringing to the wider organisation – this process will also support effective portfolio management.

To avoid overwhelming colleagues with too many changes, pace the changes and where possible, provide time for people to adjust to each new initiative before introducing the next one.

3 Ensure goals are aligned across workstreams

This will help teams and business units to understand how they're contributing to the wider picture rather than feeling siloed.

You can achieve this through effective programme planning from the offset, providing impacted groups with regular updates and creating working sessions to help business units see what's being delivered elsewhere and, most importantly, what it means for them.

4 Communicate effectively

Clear, consistent and transparent communication is crucial to overcoming transformation fatigue. Leaders should communicate frequently and openly about the reasons for the transformation, its goals, and how it will impact their people.

Consider people’s motivations and take the time to understand what drives individuals so that if a colleague or group is experiencing a level of fatigue, you can tailor the approach in a way that gains their engagement and commitment. It could be that some are afraid of losing their jobs through the changes being delivered, or others may not fully understand the need for changes and prefer older ways of working where they feel confident and comfortable.

Don’t underestimate the importance of making people feel as though they’re being listened to and understood.

5 Invest in strong change management capabilities

Don't underestimate how important it is to manage the change effectively so that you can turn anyone resistant to the transformation into an advocate and to ensure the change lands successfully.

Make sure that you have the right skills sets in place for how to create change plans and how to effectively measure success of the change. You'll need the ability to work with a range of teams and stakeholders to bring them along on the journey, as well as knowing the best channels for reaching them all and the right frequency of communication to keep engagement.

6 Anticipate transformation fatigue and include mitigation into change plans

Awareness of transformation fatigue as a potential side-effect means you can get ahead of it from the start. You can incorporate risks into the risk log to be tracked throughout the transformation, and factor mitigations into change plans so that measures can be considered ahead of fatigue occurring. Forecasting where and when it is most likely to manifest will help prevent it from becoming an issue.

7 Focus on culture

Make sure that the new culture that the transformation hopes to bring is at the heart of all the changes being delivered. Include it in all the communications and branding to instil the principles you wish colleagues to uphold, and gain input through recurring sessions where people can discuss ideas and concerns (in a structured way so as not to adversely affect scope).

People need to feel involved in the decision-making process. This can be done through structured working groups. so that the change doesn’t get derailed. and you can leverage their input through feedback at later stages to capture lessons learned. Conducting change impact assessments as early as possible in the change journey can help to identify the right user groups and include all affected colleagues.

8 Enhance resilience

To help overcome fatigue, foster a culture that celebrates successes, encourages open communication where teams can provide valuable insights and suggestions for improving the transformation, and provides opportunities to take breaks and re-charge to avoid people getting burnout or feeling overwhelmed. 

Offering training, coaching and mentoring will help colleagues feel supported, as will providing access to resources that help people learn new skills and adapt to the new ways of working. Help colleagues shift their mindset to seeing the opportunities in the changes rather than obstacles to them.

Bear in mind that regular, smaller changes can have just as much impact – or more – on an employee than a large-scale change so try to see things from their perspective and consider what they're experiencing day to day.

9 Meaningful metrics help measure change success

Know what you're aiming for and what success looks like, with clear goals and objectives for the transformation initiative. Consider impactful benefits that can be delivered quickly with minimal effort, enabling colleagues to see results faster while waiting for bigger changes down the line.

It's also important to recognise what’s been achieved so far, celebrating the small wins and making sure that those involved feel valued for their efforts in helping to make the change happen. Such recognition can boost motivation and encourage ongoing commitment to the bigger changes to come.

There's no one single answer to dealing with transformation fatigue. Taking a holistic approach that addresses the underlying causes and provides colleagues with the necessary support to adapt to change will help to build the trust you need to make transformation initiatives successful and bring colleagues on the journey together.

For more insight and guidance, contact Carolyn Hicks.

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