5-second summary

  • Change fatigue is resistance or passive resignation to organizational changes on the part of an employee.
  • Under normal circumstances, we can rely on our “surge capacity” to deal with sudden, short-term changes. The ongoing pandemic has depleted these usual reserves.
  • Research shows that employees’ ability to cope with change is 50% of pre-pandemic levels.
  • Team leads can help reduce change fatigue by building trust and team cohesion.

  • Thinking back over the last 15 months, how many major changes would you say you had to absorb? Even if you weathered the pandemic mostly unscathed, you probably had to deal with exponentially more changes than you would in a typical 15-month period. 

    In so-called normal times, under normal circumstances, 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.”

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    The problem, Haelle tells us, is that our surge capacity is generally called into use for short-term needs. However, the pandemic created a kind of long-term uncertainty that none of us are used to. Because the crisis is ongoing and impacts just about every aspect of our home and work lives, we haven’t been able to replenish our capacity. We’re seeing the consequences of this at work.

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    According to a study from Gartner, employees’ ability to cope with change is 50% of what it was pre-pandemic. 

    What’s especially interesting is that the Gartner study found that smaller changes create more fatigue. Changes that impact someone’s day-to-day life, such as moving to a new team or getting a new manager, impact employees 2.5 times more than larger, more structural changes, such as a merger or acquisition.

    The reality is that many businesses are undergoing massive changes as we speak. So how can managers and team leads reduce the impact of change on their people, while navigating changes to their industries and operations? It turns out, quite a bit.    

    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.

    1. Trust

    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.

    2. Team cohesion

    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 the Gartner 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.

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    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. 

    As we embark on change initiatives in 2021 and beyond, it’s important for managers to pay attention to where we invest time and energy in terms of change management. Keep these things in mind as you navigate change:

    • Day to day changes are most damaging to employees.
    • Trust and team cohesion differentiate employees that can absorb more change. 
    • 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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