Thinking back over the last few years, how many major changes would you say you had to absorb? Even if you weathered the pandemic relatively unscathed, you’ve likely been affected by the long and painful pandemic recovery, the uncertainty of the return-to-work era, and ever-looming economic headwinds.
Most of us can deal with a certain amount of change, even if those changes are disruptive or disastrous. That’s because we’re equipped with something called “surge capacity.” Author Tara Haelle explains this as “a collection of adaptive systems – mental and physical – that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters.”
The problem, Haelle tells us, is that our surge capacity is generally called into use for short-term needs. But we’ve spent so much time in a holding pattern of long-term uncertainty, we haven’t been able to replenish our capacity. We’re seeing the consequences of this at work.
How to deal with change fatigue
According to a survey from Gartner, employees’ resistance to change remains high. What’s especially interesting is that the Gartner study found that smaller changes create more fatigue. “Approximately half as many employees are okay with changing how they work [in 2022] compared to the number who would have gone along with an employer-initiated change in 2016,” the report says.
So how can managers and team leads reduce the impact of change on their people, while navigating changes to their industries and operations?
2 factors that make change easier to handle
Some employees have a greater capacity to absorb change than others. Gartner identified two key factors that differentiated those employees who had high capacity for change and those who had low capacity for change: trust and team cohesion.
Trust in this instance means that the employee believes that leaders, managers, and HR:
- Have the employee’s interests in mind
- Have considered the impact the change will have
- Say what they mean and follow through on their promises
Where an employee experiences low trust, their capacity for change is cut in half. And that’s not all. Employees that perceive a high-trust change effort have 2.6 times the capacity to absorb change compared to those with low trust.
In times of change, it’s good practice to over-communicate with your team members. Be transparent with information, but above all, seek first to understand. Make sure you understand how changes will impact each member of your team. Remember that communication is a two-way street, and this is a time when listening becomes even more important. It will also help show your team that you care about them, both professionally and personally.
To the degree that the change impacts you, lead by example and share your own vulnerability. This will make it easier for others to open up and express their own concerns.
Team cohesion refers to the extent to which team members share a sense of belonging and connection, and commitment to and accountability for a collective goal. Teams that experience high levels of disruptive change may feel stuck in an everlasting “forming and storming” phase.
Similar to high trust, a high sense of team cohesion can give employees a 1.8x increase in change capacity, according to Gartner’s research.
Building a strong sense of team cohesion should start on day one and continue throughout a team’s lifecycle. The Atlassian Team Playbook provides free workshops and exercises to help teams align on goals, set expectations for behaviors, or clarify roles and responsibilities. As a manager, it’s worth revisiting many of these exercises when your team experiences change, so you can mindfully shepherd them through any disruptions.
Communicate early and continuously
Open-source change management can go a long way to reduce the impact on individuals. This means bringing employees in on the change journey early on.
For example, with Atlassian’s shift to Team Anywhere, which allows employees to work remotely from anywhere they choose, the decision was announced early, even before key decisions had been made. That way, employees could mentally prepare for changes ahead, with the knowledge that details would be coming. This also gave employees the chance to offer feedback and get involved along the way.
Timing of communication is also key. It’s important to remember that the impact of change can sometimes be a lagging indicator. Announcements of big changes may come months or weeks before people will begin to feel the impacts in their daily working experiences. These “ripples” take the biggest toll in terms of change fatigue.
As managers and leaders, it’s important to be mindful of the ripples and keep a pulse check on your team members as time goes on. Schedule regular check-ins and remember to check in personally as well as professionally. Continue to update the team on the progress of the change, and acknowledge the impact it is having on the team.
Any time a team is embarking on a change initiative, it’s important for managers to pay attention to where they invest time and energy in terms of change management. Make trust and team cohesion a top priority when communicating change, and remember that an effective change experience that is grounded in the employee experience during key time periods can help reduce the risk of change fatigue.
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