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Change fatigue? Moving from zombies to the living

Release Date

19 November 2013

People don’t resist change, they experience it all the time. What they resist is having change imposed on them, according to Ivana Crestani, Managing Director of the Ryder Self Group. Crestani added that while designers of change programs tend to be excited about them, the recipients of them tend to be fearful, particularly about loss of control.
 
Common problems include:
 
  • Some of the expressions widely used by managers are conversation-stoppers, such as ‘Forget the past’, or ‘no budget available’ immediately disengage people.
  • About half of all organisations try to make three or more significant change initiatives at once. Change fatigue is a common employee symptom, but Crestani said that the impact of multiple and ongoing changes has not been widely studied. However, the main issue appears to be change fatigue rather than change resistance.
     

Why and how people disengage

 
Crestani said that people are readily capable of adapting to organisational change if they are able to retain some sense of stability in other areas (eg their personal lives); however, if they become overloaded, they tend to switch off. Disengagement is actually a physiologically-based reaction, because it operates as a self-protection mechanism.
 
Passionate employees are more likely to suffer burnout from change overload, so it is important to be able to identify the symptoms of disengagement in them, and also watch for stress symptoms such as headaches or tiredness.
 
A moderate level of work stress is actually a good thing, because it stimulates and stretches people, but negative stress pushes them into what Crestani called a ‘zombie zone’ — when they become unable to think and act quickly. This zone is often a prelude to burnout.
 
New research suggests that people do not have to be directly impacted by change to be adversely affected by it, they can still find it stressful when change is impacting on other employees.
 

A strengths-based approach

 
Crestani described an approach called Appreciative Inquiry, a positive psychology technique that focuses on employees’ strengths and motivations to help them embrace and cope better with change. The technique seeks to help employees discover their strengths by asking them to recall times when they felt energised, excited and fulfilled in work situations, and explore the reasons why. The theory is that people are far more engaged in these situations, so being able to present change in ways that appeal to and use their strengths will maintain engagement and make change more successful. AI is discussed further below.
 
Feeling valued and proud of their work is crucial to employees’ engagement, Crestani said. Key elements of this are:
 
  • recognition of good work
  • belief that managers listen to and encourage employees
  • being able to contribute to decisions
  • having pride in their organisation
  • managers who lead by example.
     
All these factors require managers to allocate more of their time to employees, but often they are too time-poor themselves to do so.
 
The challenges for managers are to switch on those employees who have switched off, and to energise employees when they do feel valued.
 

Tips for communicating change

 
Crestani said that careful use of language when communicating details of change is extremely important. Language can have a disengaging effect, even inadvertently. The examples above of ‘forget the past’ (which implies that nothing employees have previously achieved is worthwhile), ‘no budget’ (which implies that no alternative suggestions will be considered or even listened to), and ‘our vision is to achieve excellence’ (which implies that everything achieved to date is rubbish) are common ones. She also quoted the New South Wales Government’s current ‘change management plan’ as referring mainly to staff cuts. Note: most people’s default reaction is a negative one.
 
Communication of change needs to have both emotional and rational elements to be effective. Typically, around 80 per cent is rational and 20 per cent emotional, but the reverse would be more appropriate. Mass communication needs to cover all of the following:
 
  • picture — describe what the future will look like
  • purpose — reasons for changing
  • part — what is each employee’s role in the change
  • plan — how change will occur, which should include specifying what will NOT change.
     

Appreciative Inquiry

 
Crestani described the use of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) as a technique for facilitating change. It is a strengths-based approach that seeks to uncover what is ‘best’ and most valued by employees and the organisation. For example, it asks high-performing employees why they have stayed with the organisation, instead of the exit interview approach of asking employees why they are leaving. The focus is then on using and building the strengths and turning any issues into potential strengths. The technique is also used to reignite employees who have switched off.
 
AI consists of a five-step cycle:
 
  1. Define — describe the desired positive change.
  2. Discover — explore employees’ existing strengths and what they are most proud of.
  3. Dream — imagine what the future would look like if strengths could be fully utilised.
  4. Design — develop changes to achieve the future scenario.
  5. Destiny — plan how to get there.
     
Crestani added that stories are an important aspect of using AI, and presented some case studies of strengths identified in different organisations.

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Source: Mike Toten is an HR Consultant who specialises in research and writing about HR best practices, industrial relations, equal employment opportunity and related areas. He has been a regular contributor to WorkplaceInfo for a number of years.
 

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